Right now, where the abandoned, rusty old Boonton rail line runs through Newark’s North Ward, you’ll find a mess of asphalt, overgrown weeds, cars and trucks parked for storage and illegal dumping. For Sen. Teresa Ruiz, who grew up here, it’s worse than an eyesore.
“This is a thing we’ve been dealing with since I was little,” she said. “Those lines have been vacant and zombie. They’ve been opportunities for people who wanted to do terrible things in areas – whether it’s abuse drugs or dump garbage.”
But now this could be part of an incredible 8.6-mile linear park stretching between Montclair and Jersey City, with trees that help mitigate the urban “heat island” effect – when warmth radiates off buildings or pavement – and greenspaces for people in areas overburdened by pollution who don’t have access to them.
“Amazing,” Ruiz said. “It would be our own High Line.” Count us in too. New Jersey is the most overcrowded state in the country, and North Jersey the most overcrowded area. We let all this development happen before adequately planning for green space and access, a huge mistake. Now, how could we pass up an opportunity like this?
The Open Space Institute says it’s secured a preliminary deal to buy the land for $65 million, but the clock is ticking on its expiration. The governor and county officials need to get in a room fast and figure out who pays what.
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo says he loves the idea and will lobby hard for it, but believes the state should foot the bill. “No way” is he going to put his county’s triple A bond rating on the line for this, he told us, but he’d be willing to pay for maintenance and security on the 6 miles that run through his county.
To break this impasse, Gov. Murphy should take the lead and hash out a deal. Mayors like Ras Baraka of Newark and Steven Fulop of Jersey City hope this will boost local businesses when people stop along the way to eat, shop or rent bikes. “Property values of homes located near greenways often rise by 5% to 15%, which would provide another added benefit for both homeowners and the local tax base,” they wrote in a recent op-ed.
And there are other potential bonuses, advocates say: The area underground, beneath the rail line, is also part of the deal and could be dug out and used to run connections for broadband Internet or storage piping for stormwater overflow, to help alleviate serious flooding problems.
This greenway would run through cities where highways have ripped up minority neighborhoods, and people of color got far more than their fair share of power plants and incinerators that often cause pollution and serious health problems like asthma. This is a welcome tonic that pushes the other way, and gives a great green boon to the same folks who have gotten the short end so often.
But if we don’t act quickly, the owner of the property, Norfolk Southern, could sell it off in sections instead – much like it’s currently leased out in Newark.
“Someone just had a fenced-in area and they were taking in garbage, old trucks and pieces,” Ruiz said, right next to a school.Instead, imagine a park lined with lush gardens where these kids could play.
Excited parishioners in the Spanish mass at Newark’s historic St. Lucy’s Church brought this project to their pastor’s attention, passing around a petition to send to the governor. Father Paul Donohue, who’s from Ohio, has enjoyed a similar rail-to-trail line in Cincinnati:“It’s incredible how many people use it,” he said. “This type of park is becoming more and more common in other parts of the country. Let’s have it here, too.”