Jersey City Parks Coalition to Work as Go-Between For Community Groups, City on Plans for Area Parks

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As economies stay depressed and budgetary priorities tend towards safety concerns, cities elsewhere in the country have begun to consider privatization plans to offset the costs of park upkeep. In fact, as nearby as New York City, the Hudson River Park Trust briefly floated the idea of letting a developer build a hotel on the park, only to hear it from an irate public. Or consider how down in Bluegrass country the biggest city in Kentucky has decided to simply run a highway right through their parks, limiting waterfront access.

What’s become increasingly clear is that Jersey City gets a better grade than most when it comes to the park system – thanks in no small part to city stewardship, economic factors such as downtown development money, and, of course, community involvement.

Perhaps the ambitious parks master plan, put together in 2008 and calling for $82.2 million to be spent over ten years, was a bit too much to hope for, considering the $70 million in state aid that disappeared three years ago.

Yet Mayor Jerramiah Healy was rightfully able to boast about the work his administration has done for the park system while out on the campaign trail — even if those successes weren’t enough to get him reelected. By settling lawsuits with the city’s worst polluters, coupled with grants the city was able to acquire, the Healy administration was able to jump start an effort to turn once blighted and heavily toxic areas into future green spaces. The work is especially important for a city that ranks among the densest in the country, and where zoning for taller buildings is sometimes traded for public park space.

Then there was the Adopt-a-Lot program, which permitted residents to turn plots of unused city space, often a place where bottles are transformed into sharp glass shards, into a grassroots-based beautification movement. Although the Council was unfortunately unable to pass a measure permitting beekeeping and chickens on lots, farms have been given their due in Jersey City, notably with Friends of the Lifers, a group at the nexus of local food, job creation, and Second Chance programs.

But with all of the various parks in the city, and all of their associated nonprofit organizations, not to mention the dozen or so sometimes similarly concerned community groups, the well-meaning resident or entity has significant bureaucratic hurdles to pass through.

Which is why the city signed a memorandum of understanding with the Jersey City Parks Coalition, a move officials and volunteers say will help involve a body of residents willing, able, and determined to help.

“The MOU has been signed and is based on the NYC model,” said city spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill. “This gives us the City greater flexibility in applying for grants in partnership with the non-profits.”

The timing of the MOU’s authorization, which was approved in late April by the City Council, was crucial, said JCPC president Laura Skolar.

“We felt it was important to have something memorialized with the city regardless of what administration was going to be in place,” said Skolar, a lifelong resident of Jersey City who has been involved in nonprofits and community organizations for thirty odd years.

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“A lot of what happens is who is in favor with what administration,” she said of the backroom friendships rumored to abound in Jersey City’s administrative offices and bars. “So we pushed to try to get this thing done.”

Founded in 2005, the JCPC has a mission statement that a casual reader might confuse with a municipality’s responsibility. The group, they write on their website, “assists in the development and maintenance of Jersey City’s parks and public spaces.”

With budget constraints not easing anytime soon, the public has apparently learned the best way to keep private interests out is to flood the area with public goodwill.

“Over the last several years, community groups were more and more recognized as an asset to the city,” she added.

Skolar is set to meet with Mayor-elect Steve Fulop on June 19 to discuss how the group will work with the new administration, but one thing Skolar hopes to impart is the importance of simply getting land, as was the case with Robinhood Plaza, where the city received 0.8 acres of land that is unusable as is. The costly effort of fixing up the property — which is a steep slope of rocky terrain — ought to be part of the negotiations. Indeed, city planners pointed to the land acquisition as a huge bonus for Ward C, where there is the least amount of park space. Still, they acknowledge the huge costs associated with fixing up the future park.

A developer, says Skolar, should “contribute to” open space when they benefit “from an abatement or perk such as a unit “bonus,”” she says.

This kind of discussion, says Skolar, will be made easier with the MOU, which has what she describes “four essential areas” the JCPC would weigh in on.

“If we’re representing parks and public spaces, shouldn’t someone from our organization be in on those discussions?” she asks.

And Fulop appears to be on board with how important a park system is to a city.

“Parks and open space are vital to a thriving city. We will be looking to improve existing parks while thinking of ways outside the box to create additional parks. The Parks Coalition is an immensely talented group that I have worked with in the past and intend to continue working with as mayor,” he says.

The MOU’s four main areas would help the JCPC facilitate with community input, collaborate with the city on events and programs, ease the permit-acquiring process for community groups, and to help obtain grants.

Communication is key in the MOU, notes Skolar, which requires the JCPC and the city to give notification about a plan, event, or capital improvement project in no less than 30 days. The MOU would assist in the streamlining of permits, as well, and have point people in various city department and visions, such as Legal and Cultural Affairs.

Nonprofit groups and municipalities can apply for the same grants, adds Skolar, thereby increasing the chance of the money coming to Jersey City. The MOU stipulates that the city and JCPC will help each other when applying for grants, and that all grant money acquired by the JCPC will go towards capital improvement plans.

Part of the problem with the $80 million parks master plan — which Skolar notes did not have community input, something that would change in future park planning as per the MOU — is the lack of funding. In fact, since the JCPC founded 8 years ago, the organization has brought in six-figure grants, such as $295,000 the JCPC, in coordination with the Village Neighborhood Association, received for the Village Park.

From there, the possibilities are huge, she says. Getting students to volunteer at the parks as part of the required community service could help provide a “stabilizing force” for the city. Picking up trash, erasing graffiti, or planting gardens, how the city interacts with its open space, and how open space can provide respite for a community, could have a rippling effect on quality of life. That, however, takes policing, acknowledges Skolar, as parks can become a place where trouble gathers.

Already the JCPC has over twenty members, with more groups looking to join. A recent addition, the Redstone Townhomes Neighborhood Association’s president Julio Leiva says he was convinced linking up with the JCPC was a smart move when the flowers planted last year bloomed this spring.

“We became involved because of the Big Dig,” he says of an event that brought out 1,000 volunteers to bring over 30,000 flower bulbs across the city.

Formed in the summer of 2010, the RTNA had addressing open space needs as part of its mission from the start. The question was how to do it, something Leiva says the JCPC has been instrumental in providing guidance for.

“They encouraged us to become a 501(c)3,” he adds, a tax-exempt status that will better enable the group to receive grants, but that can be a daunting task for those unfamiliar with the process.

At the same time, the RTNA is acting as the steward for Lieutenant Robert P. Grover Memorial Park, where, working with Snyder High School and other volunteers, they hold clean-up events for the park.

Considering how few residents in the city have backyards, Leiva says keeping parks open, safe, and well-maintained is essential.

“We feel strongly about open spaces,” he says. “These are the backyards for all of the city’s residents, and one of our goals is to improve them for everyone.”

Photos courtesy JCPC

Matt Hunger

is a former staff writer for the Jersey City Independent.