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By Mike Kellly northjersey.com 2/24/2023

Admiral's Walk in Edgewater is holding up the Hudson River walkway (northjersey.com) Subscription required

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Sometime in the coming months, a construction crew might cut a hole in a chain link fence in the New Jersey town of Edgewater, a narrow sliver of “Gold Coast” development on the Hudson River.

If this fence cutting actually happens , it will represent one of the most significant victories in the battle of public access to our natural resources.

But don’t hold your breath.

This dispute over a chain link fence that surrounds a condominium apartment building in Edgewater is just the latest skirmish in the long-running battle to create a continuous walkway on the Jersey side of the Hudson River.

The fence blocks an otherwise pleasant piece of the walkway that runs along the Hudson River. But the fence symbolizes years of frustration to build something that once seemed so simple — a continuous sidewalk with a river view stretching from the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee to Bayonne.

Edgewater is just one piece of this chain. But it may be the most significant — and the most mind-boggling.

To understand the sadness of this Jersey-based story, all you have to do is gaze across the Hudson River to New York City and take in the continuous pedestrian walkway running from the George Washington Bridge to Battery Park.

Yes, New York City’s government has its share of problems. Think homelessness.  And, heaven knows, the New York bureaucracy can turn a simple request to fix a pothole into a bureaucratic version of Eugene O’Neill’s landmark play, “Long Day's Journey Into Night.”

But when it comes to building a walkway, New York became something of a gold standard, compared to New Jersey’s crazy-quilt, unplanned “Gold Coast” development sprawl.

New York set a goal for the walkway. It found the money. It hired the workers to lay down the asphalt and attorneys and planning experts to navigate the various pieces of property, which included railroads, a helicopter pad and a pier where the Titanic was supposed to dock before it met that nasty iceberg in 1912.

The whole job took less than a decade.

It’s worth giving credit here to former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: With his recent love-sick allegiance to Donald Trump and his poisonous election conspiracy theories, Giuliani’s star has clearly fallen since he was named “America’s mayor” two decades ago in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But Giuliani took the lead in championing a Hudson River walkway. Without his leadership in the 1990s, New York’s walkway might still be a pipe dream.

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On the Jersey side, let’s just say the nightmares continue.

Four decades ago, the New Jersey state Legislature called for a walkway to stretch for nearly 19 miles along the Jersey side of the Hudson, from Fort Lee to Bayonne. Tom Kean was governor. Ronald Reagan was president. Bruce Springsteen did not have gray hair.

But instead of taking control of the overall project and hiring planners and contractors as New York did, New Jersey authorities came up with a completely boneheaded idea of asking waterfront developers and other property owners to do the job piecemeal style.

In practical terms, this meant that each developer or property owner was required to build only a portion of the walkway. Eventually the plan was for all the pieces to link up. Hopefully. Maybe.

OK, maybe not.

Think of this plan as a bureaucratic version of herding cats. Some cats cooperated. Some did not.

That pretty much sums up what happened with all of these New Jersey waterfront developers. Some built magnificent stretches of walkway along the Hudson — for example, in Hoboken. Far too many did as they pleased. They improvised by erecting “security” gates. They used shoddy bricks and concrete. Or they just did nothing.

Sorting out all of these pieces of the puzzle may turn out to be the longest-running public works project in the U.S. history. Or as Don Stizenberg, the glass-half-full optimist who is president of the Hudson River Waterfront Conservancy, notes: “Don’t be discouraged. We’re only 35 years in.”

Which brings us to that chain link fence in Edgewater.

Nearly three years ago, the Conservancy, which is cited in court papers as the “eyes and ears” of New Jersey government efforts to build a Hudson walkway, filed a lawsuit against the Admiral’s Walk condominiums in Edgewater.

Admiral’s Walk, one of the first of Edgewater’s “Gold Coast” developments in the 1980s, occupies almost 900 feet of Hudson waterfront. But for years, Admiral’s Walk refused to build a walkway. The condo owners even erected a chain link fence, separating the property from a marina and a park.

Admiral’s Walk attorneys claimed that they did not need to participate in the group effort to build a continuous walkway because their development predated the state law that ordered up such a walkway. They also objected to “taking private property without just compensation.”

In a sign of desperation, Admiral’s Walk even tried to bar testimony in favor of the walkway from a certified planner and licensed landscape architect, claiming he was “not qualified as an expert cartographer nor an expert in interpreting maps.”

Thankfully, State Superior Court Judge Lisa Perez Friscia, based in Bergen County, saw through these silly legal excuses. In January, Friscia ordered Admiral’s Walk to take down its fences and open up the waterfront to the public. “The public’s right is inalienable and vested,” she wrote in her 23-page decision, released on Jan. 14.

But no fence is likely to be cut down anytime soon.

Ghosts from the past: A walk down a forgotten railway line in New Jersey

Despite Friscia’s seemingly strong ruling, the dispute is still tied up with all manner of legal and practical roadblocks.

For example, the Waterfront Conservancy suggests that a ramp should extend over a narrow stretch of water from the Edgewater Marina to the edge of the Admiral’s Walk property.

Such a proposal is entirely logical. The ramp would be about 30 feet — hardly akin to building the George Washington Bridge. Plus, it would link up a walkway at a marina with the Admiral’s Walk waterfront. But lawyers are arguing over whether they might need state approval for a ramp. And then comes the question: Who pays for this ramp?

Fred Daibes, the already-controversial developer of an estimated $500 million of Edgewater’s “Gold Coast,” offered up his own vexing suggestion. He suggested that a portion of $1.9 million he owes in fines for violating state environmental laws in his developments on the river, could be used for the new ramp and walkway at Admiral’s Walk. But state officials aren’t so willing to agree — not yet. Anyway, Daibes has other problems.  Last year, he pleaded guilty to federal banking crimes.

In other words, this is one complicated story.

What’s taking place at Admiral’s Walk is just one example of how years of foot-dragging, coupled with intricate legal disputes, have delayed completion of the walkway on the Jersey side of the Hudson. Instead of joining together for the common good — as New York City did — New Jersey opened to door to all manner of obstacles.

Knocking down those obstacles has taken years.

This is why cutting a hole in the fence at Admiral’s Walk — or removing it altogether — would represent a major victory for those championing the Hudson walkway.

After Admiral’s Walk, only a half-dozen other pieces of the Hudson waterfront remain blocked from pedestrians. Taken together, these pieces represent less than a mile of the overall 18.5-mile walkway. They include a federal Superfund site in Edgewater and another parcel in the borough that was once home to oil tanks, a dry dock in Hoboken, a vacant property in North Bergen, a section of a Weehawken Park and a quarter-mile stretch near Liberty State Park in Jersey City.

“It’s not a big lift to do all of these,” says Stitzenberg of the Waterfront Conservancy. “But they all cost money.”

And, of course, New Jersey is relying on developers to put up the cash.

Which means, finishing this job will likely take years — perhaps another decade.

As Stitzenberg puts it: “One step at a time.”

Sadly these are baby steps, in slow-motion.

Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com as well as the author of three critically acclaimed non-fiction books and a podcast and documentary film producer. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

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