The description above is not a brand new town in the works, nor is it a pipe dream. It is the vision of what Union City could be - beginning in as little as 18 months.
At a meeting last week at the Union City Board of Education, Richard Franklin, an architect from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and the University of Michigan, and his staff, delivered a Feasibility Study and Master Plan for the Union City Air Rights. The term "air rights" refers to the area above the Route 495 "cut," or the roadway that bisects Union City and carries much of New Jersey's Manhattan-bound traffic. It is estimated that including areas surrounding the roadway, there are 16 acres of space, equal to the land taken up by the destroyed World Trade Center.
The event also featured members of the Union City Board of Education and students from Emerson and Union Hill high schools and the Columbus Middle School. The students were involved in a surveying project and made PowerPoint presentations at the meeting.
Perhaps the most ambitious facet of the proposed project is a plan to place a concrete "deck" over Rt. 495, essentially making the roadway a tunnel. This would effectively join Union City's north and south sides and open up the above mentioned 16 acres of space for development.
It may seem like an unusual idea, but it has been done before. Just over the George Washington Bridge in New York City, straddling Route 95 North, are "The Apartments." Jamaica Station in Queens has the same design. Architect Richard Franklin, who proposed the Union City plans, was the lead architect on that project. Boston, Massachusetts has also utilized this "deck"-style of construction as part of the "Big Dig."
The idea to use the "air rights" above Route 495 is not a new one, however. During last week's presentation, a schematic sketch was shown from 1955 that proposed almost the same exact idea. The plans languished for 50 years.
According to Franklin, "The Route 495 cut is maintained by the Port Authority and produces a tremendous amount of pollution. Union City is taking a direct hit from the state. We looked at that and various transportation factors and incorporated them into our proposal."
Franklin's partner, architect Le Ann Shelton, pointed out the positive aspects of Union City's geographical location and its importance in reviving Union City. Said Shelton, "As you can see by these illustrations, this really illustrates the centrality of Union City. It is in an ideal location. It really is the "hub" of Hudson County. There is a direct connection between New York City and Union City."
Both architects implied that the key to Union City's future growth is its connection with the transportation aspects of New York City.
Franklin's comment about air quality brought up an interesting question, which he immediately answered. In an area that is choked by pollution, how would a tunnel improve the situation? Franklin proposed using state-of-the-art air filtration systems within the new tunnel.
According to Le Ann Shelton, currently, there are easements in place that disallow covering the entire roadway.
But it was clear that this was, with the inclusion of the air-filtration idea, something that could be discussed. It should be pointed out that the proposed plans not only include building above Route 495, but also "soft areas" around the roadway, covering a two- to three-block radius.
This ambitious project involves relocating people from their apartments, something which has ruffled the feathers of some residents.
At a December 2002 Union City Commissioners' meeting, the feasibility study was discussed in a public forum for the first time in the new Stack Administration. According to a Reporter article, "Two interesting sites were proposed, places that might seem unusual for education, but could actually go a long way toward alleviating the overcrowding that exists in most Union City schools."
One was an idea to build a new high school within the Roosevelt Stadium building. The proposal called for the current stadium to remain standing but to build a new facility within its walls and most likely place a playing field on the top of the new building. The board seemed intrigued by this idea.
Another proposed idea was to build a school in the Lincoln Tunnel area. Details were sketchy on exactly how or where this would work.
Schools Superintendent Thomas Highton, who chaired last week's meeting, said in an interview after the meeting, "Actually, this is not very far down the line. The beginning could conceivably be in 18 months or so." This, of course, would hinge on a great many number of things occurring, the least of which is addressing the relocation plans.
Said Highton, "It's a tough thing. You have to find the people adequate housing, pay to move them. It's not a process that happens overnight. We are looking at plans that would avoid this."
Father Kevin Ashe, a Union City fixture and representative of the Park City Theater, said, "Union City is on its way up. We have a good administration. They're young, vital guys. The mayor is good. And really, Union City has nowhere to go but 'up.' " Many at the meeting took this statement literally as well as figuratively.
Continued Ashe, "We have no waterfront, but we have the best public transportation. We don't need the [Hudson-Bergen] Light Rail to make Union City great."
According to Roy Strickland, director of Urban Design for the University of Michigan, who was hired to oversee the proposal, "Schools are a big part of this." The proposal calls for closing a number of Union City's schools and building new "super schools," including one high school that would house all of the town's high school students. And to this end, students were recruited to do surveys of the areas around 495 that would be affected.
According to a recent press release, "Students at Emerson, Union Hill and Columbus school have been working on a project in conjunction with the University of Michigan School of Urban Studies to evaluate existing community resources such as housing, parks and education needs and identify critical issues important to Union City, including the use of 'air rights' over Route 495. The students feel that Union City's proximity to midtown Manhattan and good transportation access make the community a prime location for business and residential improvement."
Emerson student Daniel Perez and Union Hill students Ali Musa and Jose Argueta gave a rather polished presentation consisting of a PowerPoint presentation created by Emerson student Jonathan Caraballo. Photographs of proposed development areas were inter-linked with geographical representations that helped to give an idea of what parts of Union City, specifically, would be affected by the project. If nothing else, the presentation showed conclusively that the young people of Union City are involved and interested in the future of their city.
While overall cost details remained sketchy at best, architect Richard Franklin, in his presentation, estimated that the cost for building the deck (which would cover the 495 roadway and allow building to occur) would be "conservatively $225 per square foot." This translates to approximately $156.8 illion. This does not include any of the other proposed projects. All present at the meeting made it clear that the people of Union City would not be footing the bill.
According to Schools Superintendent Highton, "a combination of funds would be used including federal funds, Abbott funds (for school construction) as well as contributions from the Port Authority."
No representatives from the Port Authority were present to comment on any future spending for such a project, but considering recent department-wide belt tightening at the Port Authority, spare change may be hard to come by.