Warner LeRoy was a New York businessman who created and owned the amusement park Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J. At one time operated restaurants in New York City that included included Tavern on the Green and The Russian Tea Room. In 1981, he had a plan to make a bundle at Liberty State Park. His proposal, as reported by the Herald News on Dec. 13, 1981, called for “8,200 living units for 15,000 people on 199 acres, an aerial tramway over the Hudson River to Ellis Island, an open-air amphitheater, a museum of transportation, a yacht club, and a structure containing restaurants, shops and displays.”
Leroy submitted his proposal after the State of New Jersey placed notices in newspapers around the country seeking development proposals for Liberty State Park. That notice sought plans that would “provide a variety of uses compatible with the recreational purposes of the park and which use existing facilities…” Like 8,200 condos? Brendan Byrne was governor of New Jersey at the time and the Herald News story suggested that he was buddies with LeRoy.
Nor was LeRoy’s the only proposal. The same Herald New story reported that another proposal came in from the French-based Sperry Group calling for 3,700 housing units, a 275-room hotel and a series of canals and bridges done in the style of a 19th century Dutch village. Neither of these proposals were ever realized. As you can see from the images here, Liberty State Park looks neither like Great Adventure, nor like a 19th century Dutch village.
What you can see are beautiful and sometimes stunning views of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and lower Manhattan. It is that setting which has attracted scores of schemers, developers, entrepreneurs and their political allies who saw in those views a pretty robust profit center. The schemes have included marinas, golf clubs, amusement parks, water parks, hotels, strip malls, a race track, a performing arts center, even a doll museum. This has been going on for 43 years, ever since the same Gov. Byrne dedicated the park on Flag Day of 1976 during the U.S. Bicentennial.
A new wave of development plans arrived with the administration of Gov. Chris Christie from 2010 to 2018. Christie trumpeted a “sustainable parks” plan through which he hoped to raise $15 million. As part of that initiative the Department of Environmental Protection hired a consultant to prepare a report on the potential development of Liberty State Park.
Here are some of the suggestions that came from that consultant, Biederman Redevelopment Ventures:
— For the train shed: A low-rise hotel within the envelope of the train shed; Re-creation of famous restaurants (past and present) from all over New Jersey; A museum tied into the historic use of the space and its location, such as a national museum of immigration or a museum of transportation and technology.
— For the terminal building: Restaurant/bar with indoor and outdoor seating to take advantage of the incredible views of Lower Manhattan and New York Harbor, along with shops and stores. Event/conference center, small event/catering hall combined with smaller cultural uses (artist studios, art galleries), theater Lease the building to an adjoining hotel in the Train Shed.
— For the south area of the park: Boathouse and marina; Field house for indoor sports; Amusement park; Outdoor amphitheater.
But perhaps the most audacious of all proposals came from a group called Liberty Rising. Their plan, according to a report in Bloomberg, was to build a Formula One racetrack with a 100,000 seat grandstand. The principals of Liberty Rising were for the most part keeping their heads under the table, but Bloomberg was able to identify one of them as Tom Considine who had been the banking and insurance commissioner in the Christie administration.
The issue of whether to exploit public lands for commercial purposes has been a controversial one in the last couple years in the U.S. The Trump administration has shown a preference for surrendering public lands, including the national parks, to commercial interests for the extraction of fossil fuels. The situation at Liberty State Park is perhaps summed up best on the Web site 6sqft:“even as the public land is enjoyed by the public for which it is set aside, private interests see the taxpayer-owned waterfront parkland as a jackpot waiting to happen in the form of luxury resort concepts.”
There is a marina at the north end of the park in the old Morris Canal. And there are two restaurants nearby. Those are the only pieces of commercial development the park has undergone in its 43 year history. In my next post I’ll look at the park’s protectors, the people who have kept it looking like it does in these images.