The Sixth Street Embankment saga is over a decade old, but the group leading the preservation charge is hopeful that the upcoming year will bring good news to help facilitate not only a new elevated park, but the eventual transformation of other rail lines around the city into a green space network.
Earlier this month, the Embankment Preservation Coalition hosted a meeting to update the public about the property, which spans six blocks. The structure itself was part of the Harsimus Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which was first built in the mid-1800s and later elevated on the Embankment in 1902.
Railroad companies in those days were granted generous eminent domain powers under state law and were exempt from paying local taxes on the land, which “helped” make Jersey City the largest rail city in the country. To this day, several abandoned rail lines display that legacy. Freight use on the Embankment ceased in 1999 and then-owners Conrail sold the property to eight LLCs affiliated with developer Steve Hyman in 2005.
But that’s where things got tricky. Conrail did not formally abandon the Harsimus Branch that ran through the Embankment, claiming that the property hosted only a spur rather than a full-blown rail line. Jersey City sued, arguing that because Conrail didn’t get authorization from the Surface Transportation Board (or STB) to legally abandon the Embankment, they should have offered the property to public entities before selling it to Hyman.
The courts agreed and both a Federal Judge and the STB ruled that the Harsimus Branch wasn’t just a spur in 2014. Currently, the STB is performing a Historic Preservation Review of the property, although no timetable has been set for a decision.
Coalition President Stephen Gucciardo says that the current situation is “rare,” as the STB’s review is supposed to take place while the railroad owns the land, not after it’s sold. Hyman still legally owns the Embankment, but the Coalition is seeking to have the property turned back over to Conrail and then re-sold to Jersey City, who have made an offer of financial assistance to acquire it if the STB voids the original sale, something they have the power to do.
The Coalition has drawn up plans for a ‘High Line’ style park on the structure, but the city would first have to acquire the land as a rail line and perform a study before properly abandoning it. They have pledged to preserve it for open space and Gucciardo said that if the Embankment is eventually acquired by the city, “we won’t have a problem raising funds” to create the park.
But the Embankment is “not just a Downtown thing,” says Luke Schray, who heads the Coalition’s Crossroads Committee. Schray gave a presentation about how converting the Embankment into a park could help facilitate a walking and biking trail network on existing rail lines throughout Jersey City that could connect to the Bergen Arches, which is owned by NJ Transit and has had green space ideas proposed.
A potential junction created between the Embankment and the Bergen Arches could also be extended north using existing elevated rail bridges and train tracks that run underneath the palisades cliffs along the I-78 extension, connecting up to Hoboken’s 2nd Street Light Rail Station. That same rail line also extends south to Liberty State Park’s Light Rail station, and Schray says that connecting and converting all these sections for pedestrian use would not only create a centrally located green space, but also a “parallel transportation system” that doesn’t require cars.
But to facilitate this vision, the Embankment could use your help. The Coalition says that public support for a project like this can make a difference and encourages the public to sign their petition, which will be sent the STB for their consideration. Over 2,000 people have chimed in, and the Coalition is hopeful for a ruling from the STB on the Embankment sometime this year.