By Benjamin Spencer
JERSEY CITY, N.J. – The Pennsylvania Railroad is the stuff of legend, and the High Line Park has become downright famous. Chances are, though, most New Yorkers have never heard of a closely related piece of rail history – the Embankment, directly across the Hudson from Greenwich Village in Jersey City.
But if Stephen Gucciardo has his way, this 100-foot wide, half-mile-long segmented stone wall will soon earn its rightful respect as a historic landmark – and more.
“I’m talking about the possibility of open space, the possibility of a greenway, the possibility of light rail,” says Gucciardo, a director of the Embankment Preservation Coalition, a neighborhood-based nonprofit that, along with Jersey City and the Rails to Trails Conservancy, wants to preserve the elevated former train trestle.
But the current owner of the Embankment, Steve Hyman, is not about to let his wife’s highly valuable property go without a fight. The city and the non-profits “committed fraud,” he says.
The city of Jersey City has offered several times since the sale to buy the property from Hyman, most recently for around $7.7 million, according to records.
But Hyman says he’s not selling and maintains the land is worth more than the city has. The two sides have been involved in an increasingly bitter federal court and city zoning battle since 2005, when previous owner, Conrail, sold the Embankment to Hyman’s wife, Victoria. The total price was $3 million.
How bitter has the fight become? On National Make a Difference Day (October 23rd), the coalition organizers put together a volunteer force to weed and remove unsightly trash from the Sixth Street side of the walls. Hyman ordered coordinator Suzy Winkler and her team to stay off the property, They did. The same day, in a Jersey Journal blog, Hyman restated his warning against trespass and added, “I think that the walls are ugly and are (a) blight on the neighborhood but I think that the weeds are beautiful. … Suzy Winkler please do not let anyone remove the weeds from the Embankment properties because they have AESTHETIC VALUE to me. Thanks, Steve Hyman.”
In an interview, Hyman said the state and city “could find anything historic as long as it doesn’t cost them anything. They could find this table historic.” Asked if he believed the city’s plans, he sighed and shook his head. “It is definitely a lie on Healy’s part to say they want light rail. Nobody’s going to build anything on a decaying property.”
The Embankment has become one of the most fought-over pieces of real estate in the area’s history. Standing like a fortress bulwark along Sixth Street and topped with an overgrown riot of young trees and tangled brush, it makes for a dramatic divider between the stately brownstone serenity of the historic Hamilton Park neighborhood and Jersey City’s increasingly bustling downtown. At its western border of Brunswick Street, it is imposing – more than 35 feet high, according to the Jersey City Landmarks Commission, with neat sandstone masonry blocks that appear structurally intact for all their age. But at the easternmost block, the stones on either side begin to look more like a patchwork of different geologic material, and packed earthen fill has spilled out from crumbling walls like foam from a stuffed animal.
The Harsimus Branch Embankment was built from 1901-1905 by the Pennsylvania Railroad in order to bring seven lines of rail freight down to the vast coal yards and stockyards on the Hudson waterfront After redevelopment on the waterfront, though, the rail line was cut off from barge routes, and eventually abandoned. Owner Conrail (a railroad consolidation company) removed all trestles, bridges and infrastructure in 1996, then put the property up for sale.
“There were rumors about knocking it down and developing it with town homes,” says Stephen Gucciardo. The coalition formed “spontaneously,” he said, out of neighborhood meetings about preserving the property. The movement took off from there.
“This is no longer just a neighborhood issue. It’s become a regional issue,” said Gucciardo. The coalition has partnered with several non-profits, including the East Coast Greenway Alliance, an effort to build a walking and biking route from Florida to Maine. Mike Ovila, the group’s Mid-Atlantic regional director, said the Embankment has been part of the planned route for almost 10 years.
“The railroads really shaped this town,” said Gucciardo. “The people who worked in this area worked on the railroads. The culture built up around the railroads. I personally think this structure is significant because it will teach people going forward what the history of this area was like nothing else will.”
THE LEGAL BATTLE
At one point during arguments in front of the Sept. 30th special session of the Jersey City Zoning Board of Adjustment, Michelle Donato sighed in apparent exasperation. She is the main lawyer representing Hyman in his efforts to obtain a certificate of economic hardship from the board – a provision that allows the owner of a commercial property to go ahead with development if it is not making at least a 12 percent annual net return on investment.
Months before, the board had thrown out one of Hyman’s hardship applications, but he appealed to a state court, where the judge found he had not been given a full hearing.
Now, at the new hearing, Donato and the coalition’s lawyer, Janine Bauer, stood in front of the board. A team of architects and expert witnesses sat with Hyman in the first rows. For three hours both sides had been arguing about the definition of what, exactly, constituted a “commercial” property.
“She is attacking the powers and duties of the Historic Preservation Commission,” Bauer told the board, gesturing to Donato.
Donato shook her head. Her voice rose. “You cannot take the property because you think it is historic,” she said. “You cannot take the property because you think it would make a good transportation route. I know this is Jersey City, but it is still the United States of America.”
In the second row, Hyman nodded. “They want to allow us to build on only one parcel of the land that we own,” said his wife, Victoria, to me. “How is that fair?”
While the hearings drag on, the two sides have been waging a separate, higher-stakes battle in federal court over Conrail’s sale of the property. This fight began in 2007, when the city and the nonprofits argued that the original sale to Hyman’s wife was invalid because Conrail did not file an application of rail property abandonment to a federal regulatory agency, the Surface Transportation Board, and did not offer Jersey City a required 90-day “right of refusal.” The federal board found for the city and the non-profits and declared the sale invalid.
Hyman went to the federal district court, which threw out the ruling, saying the board did not have jurisdiction over the Harsimus Branch. The city and non-profits are now appealing to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which has jurisdiction over federal regulatory agencies.
The city and groups asked the District Court to clarify that the board had jurisdiction over the Embankment, but Judge Ricardo Urbina rejected that. He also found the city had no legal standing to challenge the sale. In the 31-page ruling, he sided with Conrail’s assertion that the Harsimus Branch was not a main line and it was under no obligation to file an abandonment application (Conrail representatives declined to comment on ongoing litigation).
Urbina also pointed out that Conrail had already sold “over 90 percent” of the Harsimus Branch to several private developers by the time the state designated the Embankment a historic site in 1999, and the city and board had not objected. Urbina further found that Conrail had attempted to sell the Embankment to the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency in 1999, 2001 and 2002 and that the agency had refused to bid. The city also had fought the Embankment’s state historic designation in 1999.
“The city probably had 10 chances to buy the Embankment,” Hyman told me. “I offered it to them myself. They were looking to buy time and wear me out.”
Hyman believes Jersey City is only harming itself by siding with the nonprofits to overturn his ownership. The city is in financial trouble and taxable residential properties could bring in funds and raise the blocks’ value, he said. If the zoning board wants “to do what’s best for the city, then they should find for me,” he said. “To take this property off the tax rolls in this economy …” He trailed off, then shrugged.
City Councilman Steve Fulop, who represents the area that includes the Embankment, said in an email that he could not comment on the legal case or the federal appeal, but that he supports preserving the Embankment and thinks it will provide “a tremendous positive” to the neighborhood.
“The open space plan can create a unique world-class park stimulating more streetscape activity,” Fulop wrote.
Told that Hyman’s appraisers had estimated the property’s value in excess of $25 million, Fulop wrote, “I do not agree with him on that price, and while I appreciate his input, the city budget should not be his concern as he is not a resident.” Fulop said the many residents and businesses he’d talked to near the Embankment were “generally supportive of open space.” He added that he hoped a compromise might be possible.
Gucciardo said the coalition has always been open to compromise with Hyman, but said the developer’s plans seemed excessive. “There are historic preservation guidelines,” said Gucciardo. “You don’t get to just build houses on top of historic landmarks.”
Gucciardo said the coalition will remain focused on open space. “We think this is worth fighting for,” he said.
Hyman calls the coalition’s compromise proposals “selfish and unreasonable.”
“This is like a play toy to them. It’s become a cause célèbre for them. Something to accomplish,” he said of the coalition. “If you think it’s historic and you want it, pay for it.”