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Jim Dette is a long time resident of Weehawken. The essay written below first appeared in the Jersey Journal but in an abbreviated version. The entire text is included here.
Jim gives us a brief recent history of the Weehawken Waterfront and offers us some very compelling reasons not to develop at all.
First North American Serial Rights
Copyright © 1999 James T. Dette
TO BUILD OR NOT TO BUILD: OUR WATERFRONT DILEMMA
James T. Dette
The Township of Weehawken is again at a familiar precipice: Roseland Development Corporation is prepared to come before the Planning Board for final approval of a plan to develop the remainder of our waterfront. By reviewing, debating, and revising this proposal for the past year, the citizens of Weehawken are truly becoming experts in the process to the delight of some and the dismay of others. But in the end what is it we will have achieved?
In the summer of 1983 the citizens of Weehawken were treated to a state-of-the-art symposium on "world class" development of our waterfront by its then new owner, Arthur Imperatore. He spared no expense in gathering the top practitioners in urban planning, The Hillier Group, and urban architecture, Cesar Peli, Dean of the Yale School of Architecture. The lectures were presented at Planning Board meetings held at town hall. Attendees were greeted with Mozart on the sound system and a smiling Arthur, whose hands, he assured us, were clean. The lectures by the experts were complete with renderings, charts, slides, and a scale model of the proposal.
And what a proposal! The mixed use planned unit development featured four 40-story towers with a 700-foot obelisk as a centerpiece, marking the owner's (and Weehawken's) place in the world. It assured us of a waterfront walkway in keeping with the recent state mandate; most importantly, the development would be geared, almost limited, to mass transit access via ferry and light rail. A through highway would not be tolerated. It was, in a word, spectacular, and in two other words, world class.
Yes, it was spectacular and world class, but was it Weehawken? The citizens had reservations--were shocked, would be a better description. Four objections were voiced, particularly by members of the Weehawken Environment Committee (WEC): the proposal was too dense, had no public open space, completely lacked infrastructure, and worst of all, obliterated our view of New York City, the Hudson River, and the upper bay, forever. These objections were characterized as gross ingratitude, expressed by the owner with a patronizing, Father-knows-best attitude.
The town fathers, faced with an irate citizenry and a developer supposedly ready to turn the first spadeful, undertook a precipitous effort to re-zone the waterfront. The design factors the planning board used as the basis for the new zoning plan were lifted, with some modification, from the grandiose plan of the owner. To placate the protectors of the view, a compromise was arrived at in the now well-known Weehawken View Plane and the now infamous Palisades Plane. The seekers of open space were given a six-acre park located in one of the more environmentally stressed areas of the site and under the ventilators of the Lincoln Tunnel
If the town fathers had been under the gun, the WEC was then faced with a classic Hobson's Choice: accept development, struggle with the planning process, and be assured that we would come out on the short end of any compromise that could be exacted; or oppose all development, and be painted obstructionist and relegated to the back of the planning bus or even left at the stop. We chose the former and are suffering the consequences.
We have fought tooth and nail every inch of the way to arrive at the situation in which we now find ourselves: a proposal that is not quite as onerous as the grandiose scheme that shocked us fifteen years ago. We have prevailed upon the developer to build within an extended Weehawken View Plane across the site. He has given barely a nod to the need for open space. And we are about to be overwhelmed by a waterfront highway.
I personally regret every hour of time and the effort that I have put into this lamentable process. The only mitigating factor for me is the unstinting thanks I have received from those, especially Ruth Elsasser, who have led this effort and have put in much more time and effort than I have. In retrospect I personally would rather have fought against any development on our waterfront except for the water-oriented recreation so sorely needed by our community, in which I include all of Hudson County. I believe that my stance is not obstructionist, because I believe there are alternatives which are environmentally and socially just. Having devoted the time to fighting the process, however, I have not pursued the alternatives, and I regret this most of all. Because this is such a complete change of heart, I believe that I owe an explanation for my view.
I recently attended a presentation by the Waterfront Project at the Rutgers Law Clinic. It was an informative, overall view of what is happening on the 700-mile shore line of New York harbor. I was particularly struck by the concept of environmental justice described by Ann Alexander, an attorney for the Rutgers Clinic. Her comments were very brief, and I'm not sure what environmental justice may entail, but it crystalized for me the feelings I have had about this development since day one. The following is a summary of my position.
The development on our waterfront is environmentally and socially unjust. It does not serve the community: our Weehawken community, our Hudson County community, and the world community. (If this is a "world class" development then it should serve a world community, but to avoid any confusion in the minds of the reader, I will restrict myself to considerations of community to Hudson County.) We are planning for people who will come from outside the community. We should plan with the anticipation that we will attract people from outside, but we should not develop a plan that will be realized at the expense of the existing community. That is unjust. I will develop this point in a discussion of five interrelated areas: open space, the view, density, infrastructure, and housing.
Open Space. Since the presentation of the first grandiose plan we have argued that the community is woefully short of open space. We presented planning standards to prove our point. In the past fifteen years the community has added little to our open space: small waterfront parks in Weehawken and Hoboken, the former as a default reward for an error in the developer's calculations. We are in fact losing open space. North Hudson Park is being subdivided into ballfields. Ballfields do not equal open space. We need ballfields, but they must not come at the expense of open space. The community still has the opportunity to address the need for open space: the land available on the Weehawken waterfront. It could be a park and ballfields that would serve the whole community and provide the space we are in dire need of: water- oriented recreation, reclaiming the river for our use in grand style, a style that we richly deserve as a right of citizenry, not a few acres granted at the largesse of a commercial developer.
The View. We all know the view. We brag about it to anyone who will listen. We are proud of it, and rightly so. The only point I will emphasize is that the view is not restricted to the New York skyline. It is a view of the skyline, the whole river, and the harbor. In 1976 Weehawken was host to thousands of people who enjoyed an incomparable view of Operation Sail, the massing of the tall ships for our bicentennial celebration. It was our view of the whole river that made it what it was. On July Fourth in the year 2000 there will be another massing of tall ships that will be greater than any other in the world. A partial view of the river will not suffice. Even without the 2000 festivities, a view of the whole river is our community heritage. Hudson County is reputed to have the densest population in the densest state in the union. The view is our relief from the crowded condition in which we find ourselves. To deprive us of it is unjust.
Density. Density is closely entwined with open space and the view. As I have said, we are no strangers to density. I'm not suggesting that we couldn't absorb more people into the community. But to propose an addition of such high density to our community in our most inaccessible location is ludicrous. To create the access needed would substantially worsen already terrible traffic conditions. Moreover, by creating this inaccessible annex we are being deprived of our open space. It would be like building condos in New York's Central Park. This is unjust.
Infrastructure. The waterfront is, for all practical purposes devoid of infrastructure: it has no sewers, no potable water, no mass transit. We do have a two-lane road. The developer and our planning board are suggesting that the road will remain two lanes, but the option of widening is not being ruled out. And we know what that means. They will tell us that the widening is required to relieve congestion. They will not admit that the congestion is due to the Lincoln Tunnel. At the risk of repeating myself, I will state again for the record: the Lincoln Tunnel, during the now much-longer rush hour is operating at capacity. It cannot accommodate more cars in a given time than it is doing right now. Any new road, or widening of any existing road, will only provide another route on which cars will queue for the tunnel. This will result in more air pollution for the community and aggravation for the drivers. The only solution to the problem is to get the commuter out of the car on to mass transportation. There are ways to accomplish this that require a regional approach and not a quick fix at the expense of the community.
The light rail is held out as an alternative, a panacea for our problem. The light rail extension through Weehawken will not serve the current residents of Weehawken. It will probably not serve the proposed community on the waterfront either. I do not believe anyone from upper Weehawken will take whatever transportation is made available, let alone walk to the proposed light rail stations, to take it to the PATH, and then go to New York. I am convinced that we will take buses, as bad as the service is, or walk to the ferry. The proposed waterfront residents will take the ferry. The light rail could serve to rid us of the cars that stream to the ferry parking lot every day (and be compatible with a park), but it probably won't, given the four lane highway that feeds them in now. In Jersey City, however, the light rail will serve the existing community. And there are other areas of the community where the addition of light rail would be a boon-- e.g., along Kennedy Boulevard from Bayonne to North Bergen and beyond. To widen the road and to build the light rail north of the PATH will not serve the community and is unjust.
Housing. There is a crying need for affordable housing in the community. The proposed development continues the trend of building luxury condos for the few ("[T]he ultimate in multi-useless space," an architect recently joked about an extravagant penthouse in New York) and, with a wink and a nod to Mount Laurel requirements, nothing for the members of our community who need decent housing. It is unjust.
Environmentally and socially just alternatives to developing the waterfront can and must be found that will not take up our much needed open space, destroy the view, have existing infrastructure, and be the vehicle to help our true housing needs. These alternatives will challenge the developers and the community but will serve the existing community. They will be just. What it will require is leadership and political will, commodities that we are woefully short of.
James T. Dette