In recent years, New York City has finally been reclaiming its moribund industrial waterfront. But across the Hudson, Jersey City has been at it for decades. The problem, as some see it, is that while New York has mostly been redeveloping its waterfront as parkland, Jersey City has almost exclusively built office and apartment towers on its shores since redevelopment began in the 1980s.
“Sure, there’s the promenade, but that’s basically just a steel railing,” Matthew Johnson, president of the Jersey City Waterfront Parks Conservancy, said of the city’s current open-space offerings. “We want more of a natural feel.”
And so the conservancy unveiled plans for Paulus Hook Park on March 26. Designed by Starr Whitehouse and nARCHITECTS, the 9-acre park on the southern end of downtown seeks to weave together a half-dozen disparate lots into a destination for the area. “With the tremendous amount of residential development that has sprung up in Jersey City, there are a limited number of parks to serve this new community,” Johnson said.
One of the main challenges behind connecting the six separate plots is that they are owned by as many government agencies: Liberty State Park, the New Jersey Department of Military Veteran Affairs, the Morris Canal and Banking Company, the Colgate Center Property Owners Association, and the city.
As if that were not enough of a challenge, the conservancy is also working against nascent development interests. Indeed, the group was founded two years ago after word had spread that some groups had expressed interest in building on various sites within the planned park. Thanks to the recession, the conservancy hopes it may have bought enough time to get the park past the planning stages and into the political ones. “It may be the perfect opportunity before somebody decides to build one of these pieces,” Johnson said.
At the heart of the park is a 1,000-foot-long shank-shaped spit of land that is already a public park, though it is little more than a plot of grass that is quickly eroding—a foot per year, estimates Johnson—because of heavy ferry traffic. One of the first tasks the designers will undertake if the park gets built is shoring up the peninsula against further erosion.
Beyond that, the plans call for a largely passive park, based on extensive community surveys. The surveys started with 25 different uses, from the most active (soccer fields and jogging tracks) to the most passive (walking paths and lawns for picnics and sunbathing). Johnson said the reaction was overwhelming for the latter, though a volleyball court will be included for a local group that currently plays on the extant park. A dog run is also being added, by popular demand.
Active uses aside, the idea is to provide a peaceful respite with views of the city and respect for the surroundings. “The community really understands that,” Stephen Whitehouse, principal of Starr Whitehouse, said. “They value the basic landscape, the sweep of that outdoor landscape and the sweep of the city and the river and the sun. Yes, there are some activities they wanted, but they really wanted a park that respects the space, one that integrated with the natural landscape that already exists.”
Or at least used to. Across the Little Basin from the peninsula, the spaces are mostly vacant. The iconic Colgate Clock is still there, but otherwise the land is occupied with parking, a dilapidated shoreline, a basketball court, and a roller hockey rink. In addition to the new landscape, the designers want to add an education component on the north side of the basin detailing the history of the canal that once led inland from the site, including a tie-up for a historic barge. A Korean War memorial on a secluded part of the site will be moved to a more prominent location on the northern plot and surrounded by perennial gardens.
The signature piece of the park is the “infinity bridge,” a swooping figure-eight of wood that joins the peninsula to the northern side of the park. Designed by nARCHITECTS, the bridge is meant to visually represent the connectivity and continuity of the park with its surroundings and history while also serving the practical purpose of easing circulation within it. “The longer you can walk in green the more transformed you can become,” said Laura Starr of Starr Whitehouse.
The project is still in the planning phases, though Johnson said that he has spoken with all the associated public agencies about the project and they have all been supportive so far. “We’re confident this park will be built,” he said.