Thursday, March 1, 2012

High (Line) Hopes for New Jersey

High (Line) Hopes for New Jersey

Similar dreams, struggles and efforts to create High Line's all around the world, this one is closer to home!

High Line Hopes in Jersey City


                                                                                  Roman Pohorecki
A rendering of a potential plan for the Sixth Street Embankment in Jersey City has walkways and bike paths.

After a seemingly endless legal battle, Jersey City is on the verge of getting its own version of Manhattan's High Line.
An abandoned elevated railway known as the Sixth Street Embankment has been the subject of a litigious preservation effort for more than a decade. Local groups and city officials want to transform the half-a-mile long stone structure into a grassy, landscaped park with skyline views, spanning Jersey City's gentrifying neighborhoods.
The park is also envisioned as an important link in a greenway spanning the East Coast.
Now, after a federal judge ruled against a developer blocking the park, a settlement that would hand control of the railway to Jersey City has been drafted and is awaiting approval.
"This has been an epic legal struggle," said William Matsikoudis, the Jersey City municipal attorney, who estimated the city has spent more than $500,000 in legal fees on the battle. "We're one step away from a settlement that will provide a world-class amenity for the people for Jersey City."
So far, the settlement has been tentatively approved by two of the three main litigants: Jersey City officials and Steve Hyman, a Manhattan investor who purchased the embankment from Consolidated Rail Corp. for $3 million in 2003 to knock it down and build housing. The city sued Conrail for making the sale, and Mr. Hyman, in turn, sued the city.
Under the terms of the settlement, the city would pay Mr. Hyman $7 million and Conrail would chip in $13 million to settle all the pending litigation, according to people familiar with the matter. Conrail would get development rights along the edges of the embankment, which could yield at least 300 housing units potentially valued at $10.5 million, other people familiar with the matter said.
The Jersey City Council is set to vote on the settlement Wednesday, and it appears likely to pass, said Councilman Steven Fulop, a project proponent.
The last remaining obstacle is Conrail, which is still examining the deal and wants a "number of open items" addressed, said Kevin Coakley, a partner at Connell Foley, who is representing the company. He wouldn't elaborate. "Conrail is hopeful a settlement can be achieved," he said.
Mr. Hyman, who has spent millions of dollars on the court cases, has signed the settlement, said one of his attorneys, Daniel Horgan. "Everybody wants it over with," said Mr. Horgan. "We would like everybody else to sign on it."
Even with Conrail's approval, the Jersey City version of the High Line may be a long way from reality. Initial construction could begin next year, Mr. Matsikoudis said, but designs haven't been finalized for the 110-year-old structure, formally known as the Harsimus Stem Embankment. The city would likely hold a design competition.
Still, hopes are high. It is "equal to or better than New York's High Line," said city Mayor Jerramiah Healy in a statement.
The sandstone-and-granite structure rises to 27 feet at its highest point and once carried Pennsylvania Railroad freight trains along seven tracks to the Hudson River waterfront. Conrail took over the embankment in the 1970s, but rail traffic ceased and nature took over. Ivy covers the walls and the structure is now a regular way station for monarch butterflies migrating from Canada to Mexico.
Early ideas to transform it into a park include landscaping the trees and plants already growing on top. A meandering walking trail and a bike path are possibilities along the 100-foot wide embankment, which is wider than the High Line, said Stephen Gucciardo, president of the Embankment Preservation Coalition, a volunteer group formed to save the historic relic.
Advocates want a "grand entrance" to the park's eastern section, while the western section would return to ground level and connect to the Bergen Arches, a railroad tunnel that runs through the Palisades.
The abandoned tunnel feels remote despite the highways and development around it, said Mr. Gucciardo. "It's like coming upon some kind of Mayan temple that has been overgrown. It's lost in time," he said.
The dream for advocates is to connect the embankment to the 2,600-mile East Coast Greenway, a trail that is under development from Maine to Florida. In New Jersey, 20% of the 93-mile trail is complete, said Rails to Trails, an advocacy group that promotes trails along railways.
The saga over the Sixth Street Embankment began in 1998, when former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler decided to knock it down for housing.
There was an outcry from residents, who in 1999 succeeded in getting the embankment added to the State Register of Historic Places. The City Council voted in 2004 to take it over for a 6.5-acre park by eminent domain.
The city sued Conrail in 2005 for selling the land to Mr. Hyman, who then filed a dozen separate suits over myriad issues involving the land.
Settlement negotiations got a shot in the arm Friday when the U.S. Court of Appeals rejected Mr. Hyman's case and backed the city.
Write to Heather Haddon at