Two relics of Jersey City’s industrial past that are only four blocks from each other are presently worlds apart, with one undergoing a building boom and the other being fought over as potential open space.
The two structures in question are both former elevated freight lines that run through Hamilton Park, one being on 10th Street and the other being the Sixth Street Embankment. Formerly known as the Harsimus Branch of Pennsylvania Railroad, the rail lines carried goods to and from the waterfront starting in 1902 through the 1970s before being turned over to shipping giant Conrail.
On top of the 10th Street Embankment, LeFrak is building the Embankment House, a six story building with 163 residential units. LeFrak, the architect of Jersey City’s Newport neighborhood, has also been given approvals for an identical building across the street on the embankment nestled between Coles and Monmouth Streets.
On the other side of the tale of two rail lines, developer Steve Hyman purchased the Sixth Street Embankment from Conrail in 2005 for $3 million, also intending to build residential housing on it. But the property has been tied up in litigation for over ten years, still remaining vacant to this day.
So why is LeFrak allowed to build housing on the 10th Street embankment, but development has been blocked on Sixth Street? Because Conrail abandoned the 10th Street embankment in accordance with federal law in 1984, but did not receive federal approval to abandon the Sixth Street line, saying that the structure contained only a spur rather than a full-blown rail line.
Because of this, the city initially argued in court that because Conrail didn’t get authorization from the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to legally abandon the embankment, they should have offered the property to public entities before it was sold to Hyman. The courts have frequently agreed and a Federal Judge ruled in favor of the city on the matter in 2013, which was reinforced by a STB decision that was handed down in 2014.
City officials and several community groups have been seeking to preserve the property as open space and create an elevated park akin to Manhattan’s High Line, also built on a formerly abandoned rail line. The Harsimus Stem Embankment Preservation Coalition, a local nonprofit formed in 1998, has been leading the charge and has designed several blueprints for what the park could look like.
Last month, the city council adopted an ordinance to fund the purchase of the Sixth Street Embankment, stating they wished to run a new rail line there. The ordinance, which sets aside $5.7 million to purchase the property, is largely a strategic move so that the city can get a chance to make its argument before the STB, with the goal of taking over the property and eventually turning it into a park.
Hyman has said he’s spent over $25 million on legal fees in his attempt to hold onto the Embankment. The fight has at times turned personal, with Hyman claiming the city is perpetrating “one falsehood after another” and the city’s spokesperson calling him “delusional.” Despite many attempts to negotiate a settlement by both sides over the years, the battle over the Sixth Street Embankment doesn’t appear to have a clear end in sight as it enters its second decade.