In Lady Liberty’s Shadow, Builders Eye N.J. Playground for Rich

(Bloomberg) -- Lady Liberty, raising her torch above New York Harbor, welcomes the world’s poor. Below that flame, New Jersey may make a near-priceless swath of taxpayer-owned parkland into a playground for the rich.

On the harbor’s west shore, 5 million annual visitors flock to Liberty State Park, where the Manhattan skyline, tour boats and an historic rail terminal are a more popular draw than Yosemite’s ancient sequoias. Though its 1,212 acres (490 hectares) are set aside for public use, that hasn’t kept private interests from pitching visions of luxury-suite crowds toasting elite auto-racing teams amid the relics of America’s immigration story.

In Lady Liberty’s Shadow, Builders Eye N.J. Playground for Rich

Such is the temptation for New Jersey, the blessed and financially burdened titleholder of the waterfront real estate in one of the nation’s most densely populated areas. Facing unmet pension obligations and other budget pressures, the state in 2015 declared the park ripe for “revenue-producing activity” from long-term leases, enraging locals. Sam Pesin of Jersey City, whose late father spearheaded the park’s creation, is leading a push for a law to make the green space off limits forever.

In Lady Liberty’s Shadow, Builders Eye N.J. Playground for Rich

“The working title is the Leave Liberty State Park The F--- Alone Act,” said the normally soft-spoken Pesin, 68, a retired pre-school teacher, adding an apology for the potty mouth. “This is sacred public land.”

‘Star Wars’

Even when their national monuments aren’t at stake, Americans get touchy about government’s putting their green space into private hands.

When billionaire Philip Anschutz won approval to expand his Broadmoor resort onto Colorado Springs parkland, a non-profit group called Save Cheyenne appealed to Colorado’s supreme court, where the matter is under review. Last year, protests led then-U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, to withdraw a bill that proposed selling or privatizing 3.3 million acres of public land. In 2016, after a Chicago parks group sued to block a $1 billion “Star Wars” museum on the Lake Michigan waterfront, film franchise creator George Lucas dropped the plans and chose Los Angeles instead.

Jersey’s Gift

In the case of Liberty State Park, the land was rescued once before, after lawyer and clothing-store owner Morris Pesin started campaigning in the late 1950s to clean up the onetime Hudson River dockyards and railroad hub that turned to wasteland as industry waned. Federal grants and state funds secured the property, and when Liberty State Park opened on June 14, 1976 -- Flag Day -- it was called New Jersey’s bicentennial gift to the nation.

In the 42 years since, developers have tried to turn some or all of it into theme parks, a strip mall, luxury housing, an amphitheater, a conference center, a hotel and a sportsplex. One tried to commercialize the rail terminal where ferries delivered two-thirds of Ellis Island immigrants to trains bound for their new cities.

“Until a governor gets up and says, ‘We’re not letting anything commercial in this park,’ that cathedral of open space and the American experience are going to be under attack,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, a conservation group.

New Governor

Governor Phil Murphy, a first-term Democrat who took office in January, said he wouldn’t rule out private development at the park.

"We look at these projects one at a time,” Murphy, 60, told reporters on Aug. 14. “When you’re as small as we are, and as dense as we are, the environment really matters.”

In Lady Liberty’s Shadow, Builders Eye N.J. Playground for Rich

One recent proposal pitted the administration of Murphy, a retired Goldman Sachs Group Inc. senior director and U.S. ambassador to Germany, against Liberty National Golf Club owners Dan Fireman and his father, Paul Fireman, the former Reebok chairman and chief executive.

The club, on private land on the park’s outskirts, opened on Independence Day in 2006 atop 160 remediated toxic acres. A host of the PGA’s Presidents Cup and FedEx Cup matches, its 18th hole is just 1,000 yards from the Statue of Liberty, according to a Golf Digest course profile. Members can arrive for tee time aboard a private launch from Lower Manhattan.

Wildlife Home

When the club applied last year, at the suggestion of then-Governor Chris Christie’s administration, to expand into the park’s Caven Point wildlife area, 1,100 people emailed the Friends of Liberty State Park, a volunteer advocacy group headed by Sam Pesin.

“Should a billionaire’s golf course, which is used by multimillionaires, destroy a natural area?” Pesin said. “People knew it was wrong.”

Paul Fireman didn’t respond to voicemail messages left with his assistant at the Boston office of Fireman Capital Partners, where he is chief executive officer.

In May, state environmental officials rejected the golf-course expansion, citing technical reasons, and killed another developer’s plan for mega-yacht docks that critics called “the millionaire’s marina.”

The latest would-be developer’s Formula One racetrack -- plus a 100,000-seat grandstand and fields for international cricket matches -- would be mostly on private land. It needs about 20 public acres, though, to secure backdrop views to rival Monaco’s Grand Prix. In exchange, it would clean up about 200 park acres that are contaminated and fenced off.

Privately Funded

Except for 18 to 24 race days a year, the track would be open for charity events and other public use, according to Tom Considine, a banking and insurance commissioner under Christie, whose environmental department had declared the park ripe for development. Considine, who identified himself as one of the project’s principals, said other backers didn’t wish to be identified, and he described them only as an investment bank and “some people with long affinity with motor-sports racing.”

“This is unlike any project which they’ve opposed in the past,” Considine said of park activists. “It’s a privately funded project that would triple the size of green grass at the park.”

The proposal, though, is a long shot, and early on the group’s name, Liberty Rising, has caused confusion.

Liberty Media Corp., Formula One’s owner, has no affiliation with the project and hasn’t been in contact with the developer, according to an email from Courtnee Chun, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based company. Dave Donovan, a spokesman for Liberty National Golf Club, said Liberty Rising has no ties to a 2014 casino and auto-racing park proposal of the same name, conceived and then shelved by Fireman.

As for Liberty Rising’s pitch to clean up 200 polluted park acres, Christie’s administration in January announced that proceeds from environmental litigation awards will cover that cost. Though Considine said some parts of the project could be ready by 2020, Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state environmental protection department, said Liberty Rising met with department officials but hasn’t submitted a formal proposal.

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, a former Wall Street trader who started his second term in January, said the project’s noise and traffic would overwhelm surrounding neighborhoods.

In Lady Liberty’s Shadow, Builders Eye N.J. Playground for Rich

“I don’t see any sort of avenue where I could support this,” he said. “You have people from all over the world who aspire to come and see that view. Ultimately what you’re talking about is capitalizing on that view financially.”

Friends of Liberty State Park and NY/NJ Baykeeper, a Matawan, New Jersey-based environmental group, say that after four decades fighting for free and open access, the only logical step is legislation to keep developers from circling.

“This is our park, and we already paid for it with public tax dollars,” said Greg Remaud, chief executive officer of Baykeeper. “What’s more symbolic of America? What’s better than having this great democratic place, where anybody can come, rich and poor, black and white, every religion, all just park-goers enjoying it?”

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