A battle for the parks
Philosophical debate over funding for Berry Lane
by Al Sullivan
Reporter staff writer
Mar 30, 2014 | 4952 views | 0 0 comments | 53 53 recommendations | email to a friend | print
OLD VERSUS NEW – City parks need work. But the cost of building a new park is also overwhelming.
OLD VERSUS NEW – City parks need work. But the cost of building a new park is also overwhelming.

You can tell when spring comes to Pershing Field Park. The trees start to show buds. The snow piles melt. A city worker comes out with rakes and shovels to pick up all the dog poop that was left by pets.

This year is better than most years, according to one resident who patrols the park regularly, noting that under the new administration, the Department of Public Works hired a new supervisor to oversee the park’s cleanup.

“Dog poop is one of the biggest problems we have in our parks,” said Mori Thomas, of the Jersey City Parks Coalition (JCPC) – a group that is pressing the Mayor Steve Fulop to honor a memorandum of understanding the group has had with the city to be intimately involved with planning and decisions made about parks.

Parks and open space appear to be on the new administration’s agenda, but not everybody agrees with the way the city is going about funding parks, saying that some parks – in particular the construction of new Berry Lane Park on Garfield Avenue – appear to be getting more attention than the maintenance of older parks around the city.

Berry Lane will be the largest park in Jersey City, and is expected to mirror Pershing Field in services, providing many of the same amenities to residents in the southern portion of Jersey City that are currently available to resident in Jersey City Heights.
“Dog poop is one of the biggest problems we have in our parks.” -- Mori Thomas
The 17-acre park, located at Garfield and Communipaw avenues, has been on the drawing board for more than 15 years. But the park has been pushed ahead by the current administration, which is seeking to find revenue to continue the work.

About $10 million of the estimated $20 million renovation cost has gone into the park already. The park is being built at the site of former rail yards, junk yards, auto repair shops, industrial facilities, and warehouses. For years, the site served little more use than as a canvas for the graffiti renderings for street gangs.

Was contaminated

Stalled for years, the project picked up steam in 2009, when the city and the state Environmental Protection Agency came to an agreement with Pittsburgh Paint and Glass for the cleanup of contamination on the property that included chromium-tainted soil. PPG agreed to pay about $5.5 million towards the cleanup costs.

To create the necessary space for the project, 10 of 12 parcels were taken via eminent domain. A chromium plant operated on Garfield Avenue from about 1924, refining raw chromium ore into paint pigment and other items 24 hours a day. PPG bought the facility in 1954 and ran it until its closing in the fall of 1963.

In Phase One, which cost about $20 million, the city purchased the land, and contracted for the cleanup, grading, and installation of drainage system as well as the construction of a Little League baseball field.

Phase Two, which is underway, is expected to cost as much as $15 million, which the city is scrambling to find revenues sources to provide.

The park will begin at the foot of Berry Lane and continue south to the Bergen-Hudson Light Rail System; the former Morris Canal runs along the entire length of the site. The park will reuse the concrete silos at the new Spray Park to create a multifaceted water feature. Active recreation is organized along the path of the historic canal, creating a pedestrian promenade from the neighborhood through the park.

When completed, Berry Lane Park will include two basketball courts, two tennis courts, a baseball field, a soccer field, and a playground. Additional passive recreation areas—including 600 new trees and a rain garden—will also be included in the park.

The current debate comes as the result of $1.4 million that was left over from a $39 million bond the city council approved for other uses in 2009.

Berry Lane Park is meant to reflect many of the activities that residents have to travel to Pershing Field in Jersey City Heights to get.

Councilmen Michael Yun and Richard Boggiano have questioned the use of the money found in an old bond for the exclusive use of the Berry Lane Park project, saying that other parks need upgrades and maintenance.

Even prior to Superstorm Sandy knocking down the cupola in Riverview Park on the Eastern slope of Jersey City Heights (and other damage), parks had suffered unaddressed damage due to vandals and fires. Leonard Gordon Park (known as Mosquito Park) on the Western slope of The Heights lost its playground due to fire more than two years ago and has yet to be replaced.

Huge price tag to fix existing parks

Thomas, of the JCPC, said that a Jersey City Recreation and Open Space Master Plan developed in 2008 called for $82.2 million in funding for upgrades and renovations for existing parks. While the master plan called for expanding open space in the city that included Berry Lane, Skyway Park, and the Embankment, none of these are figured into the $82.2 million.

JCPC has raised money and obtained grants for some of the work through a number of programs such as its film, music, and arts program in the parks, the annual Big Dig, and other programs. The memorandum of understanding was created in order to keep involved parties informed of upcoming items before they get on the council agenda, and to help leverage funds through the JCPC’s not for profit status, to partner on various programs with the city, and to offer programs to residents.

While the mayor as designated a deputy mayor as liaison to the group, many key people in city government are out of the loop, Thomas said.

“We must continue to improve the two-way flow of information,” he said.

Because the master plan is six years old, and the city does not have the $82.2 million to spend on the plan’s 10-year priority list, the plan needs to be re-evaluated, Thomas said.

Along with repairs and upgrades, city parks also need a reinvestment in trees, new trees planted to replace many trees that have fallen or have become decrepit with age.

“The JCPC enthusiastically supports the expansion of the city’s open space footprint,” Thomas said. “But if the city’s Park Division is struggling to maintain our existing parks, then the city council’s chief concern should be finding funding to ensure the DPW has resources necessary to take on new maintenance responsibilities.”

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com.

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