MURPHY IN THE MIDDLE: Brawl for Hoboken Waterfront Put Governor Between a Dock and a Hard Place
by Christopher Halleron
“It’s @GovMurphy vs #Hoboken Mayor @RaviBhalla & people of Hoboken at odds over Union Dry Dock. Gov has abdicated his promise of fair process,” read one tweet.
“@GovMurphy this is extremely disappointing,” read another.
With the confetti still whirling in the breeze after Governor Phil Murphy‘s inauguration, some of the same people who bent over backwards to get selfies with him outside Hoboken Terminal the day after the election are now busy sharpening their hooks over the situation with Union Dry Dock.
“Coward,” wrote one commenter on the Governor’s facebook page. It has since been deleted—which seems to be happening a lot in this argument, as the facts and practical procedural realities of the situation are explained.
The brawl on the Hoboken Waterfront got bloody last week, when NJ Transit once again came on board to consider purchasing Union Dry Dock from its current owners, NY Waterway. This stunning reversal of a previous stance came on the heels of Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla making NY Waterway “an offer they can’t refuse” (hMAG‘s words, not Bhalla’s), offering $11.63 million for the property… which came with a 14-day window.
That 14-day window is the essential component, which prompted NJ Transit’s re-engagement on the Union Dry Dock debate.
The City of Hoboken had already made crystal clear their intention to acquire this land via Eminent Domain. An appraiser working on behalf of the City of Hoboken determined the land’s value to be $11,630,000. Mayor Bhalla said in his offer letter that, “Because the City intends to utilize the property for a public purpose, it is empowered under the New Jersey Local Lands & Buildings Law to utilize its powers under the Eminent Domain Act of 1971 to acquire the property. The City will only implement this power as a last resort if voluntary negotiations fail.”
New Jersey Eminent Domain Law states that, “In no event shall such offer be less than the taking agency’s approved appraisal of the fair market value of such property,” which Hoboken had done. It goes on to say, “A rejection of said offer or failure to accept the same within the period fixed in written offer, which shall in no case be less than 14 days from the mailing of the offer, shall be conclusive proof of the inability of the condemnor to acquire the property or possession thereof through negotiations.”
So if NY Waterway balked, then that’s their problem, right?
Well, upon reaching out to the Governor’s office, it was surprising to find out that ferry service falls under the de facto umbrella of NJ Transit. Although NY Waterway is a privately owned company, the reality that nearly 100,000 Garden State residents use ferries every day to travel to and from Manhattan means it is considered to be an essential component of the region’s overall transit plan. With that cog at risk, NJ Transit intervened—for the simple fact that the state-run agency’s ownership of the land would protect it from Eminent Domain proceedings.
Basically, the City of Hoboken’s aggressive moves in this scenario forced the hand of the State into protecting what they see as an essential service. The Governor wasn’t looking to slam dunk the deal for NY Waterway. The move was made to head off a situation where NY Waterway would be unable to maintain its service to the people of New Jersey.
That explains why the City was quick to back off its Eminent Domain proceedings. When pressed as to why they would do such a thing, we were told that the City was acting on assurances from the Governor. “We have it in writing,” a City Hall spokesperson told hMAG directly.
When NJ Transit cancelled its meeting yet again, it left the door open to continue looking at alternatives, without the pressure of a 14-day window.
“I am glad the meeting is being canceled and we now have an opportunity to find a use for the land through an open and public process,” said Mayor Bhalla. “It is still my goal to provide a contiguous waterfront in Hoboken, and I look forward to working with the Governor’s office, New Jersey Transit, and New York Waterway to make this a reality and find a reasonable alternative location for the fueling and maintenance site.”
“The Governor’s Office continues to coordinate with all parties involved to determine an ultimate solution that both respects the voices of the local community and the needs of one of our most vital transportation partners. The Governor is taking appropriate steps to make sure that commuters are not negatively impacted during efforts to find a long-term solution,” says Mahen Gunaratna, spokesman/Communications Director for Governor Murphy.
At the end of the day, Hoboken thrives because of its proximity to Manhattan and its transit infrastructure. Hoboken serves as a railhead to the entire state of New Jersey, and therefore the State of New Jersey will be concerned when the City makes moves that could partially cauterize that artery.
The State isn’t necessarily in cahoots with NY Waterway. If they were, I doubt they would have advised them to liquidate their own property in Weehawken. But as it is, the State needs to ensure that they can continue to operate, and they need cooler heads to prevail before they’re able to determine the best way forward.
Hoboken strenuously objects to the use of the Waterfront property as a ferry maintenance site, suggesting NY Waterway utilize space in Bayonne instead.
Meanwhile, Hoboken resident Carter Craft, an urban planner with close to twenty years of experience specializing in waterfront and transportation issues, detailed a list of possible compromises centering around utilization of space and facilities at the Hoboken Terminal—where NY Waterway currently conducts operations.
The move made over the past week give all parties involved and opportunity to review and pursue any one of these plans.
So you can put the hooks away for now, Hoboken. And you can put your Phil Murphy selfie back up as your profile pic—at least until we see how this all shakes out in the end…
Christopher M. Halleron is the Publisher/Editor of hMAG.
As a columnist and journalist, he has covered various aspects of life here in the ‘greater Hoboken area’ and beyond for the past two decades.
His opinions are his own.