NY Waterway will be allowed to repair, store and refuel its ferry fleet adjacent to a residential and recreational waterfront

FBW | February 17, 2023

The lease gives NY Waterway control of 5.6 acres – or 68 percent – of the 8.2-acre Union Dry Dock site for the next five years. The ferry company would occupy all of the piers, 85 percent of the water area and nearly all of the land at the water’s edge, leaving the City with less than an acre (one-third of the land area) to start building the promised park.

Monthly rent for the first three years is $4,573, comparable to renting a 2-bedroom unit in the Skyline located in southwestern corner of Hoboken. The permitted uses under this lease include storage of twenty ferries, maintenance of the ferry fleet, removal of sanitary waste and refueling. The operations would be conducted 24/7 and the lease provides no restrictions on when ferries can enter and leave the site.

At the February 15 City Council meeting, a number of speakers critiqued the terms of the lease and pointed out the lack of transparency on the part of the City.

“The terms and conditions of this lease are egregious, totally in favor of NY Waterway and highly detrimental to the City and its residents,” stated Ruth McMorrow, a Maxwell Place resident living next door to the leased property. “The stated rent levels do nothing to incentivize NY Waterway to leave at the end of either the initial term or the extension.”

Ron Hine, Executive Director of Fund for a Better Waterfront, reminded the council that “the whole community came together to prevent NY Waterway from locating there with its ferry maintenance and refueling operation. When we looked at this lease we saw that this is exactly what we are getting for the next five years.”

At the conclusion of the public hearing, the Hoboken City Council approved the lease in a 7 to 2 vote, with Council members Jen Giattino and Tiffanie Fisher providing the sole dissenting votes.

Governor Murphy helped to broker an agreement — announced with great fanfare in June of 2021 — between NY Waterway and the City of Hoboken, which permitted the City of Hoboken to acquire the Union Dry Dock property for $18.5 million, $7 million more than what NY Waterway paid to purchase the property in November of 2017. This settlement agreement has not yet been made public nor has it been approved by the Hoboken City Council.

The agreement was based on elaborate plans to rebuild a ferry maintenance facility in Weehawken where NY Waterway has operated since it was founded in the 1980s. Today much of Weehawken’s waterfront, all formerly owned by NY Waterway founder Arthur Imperatore, Sr., has been developed. The new waterfront residents, who have experienced firsthand the negative impacts of living next to a diesel ferry refueling and repair operation, have been vehemently opposed to rebuilding the facility there. For the past two years, Mayor Turner and the Weehawken Planning Board have refused to approve NY Waterway’s plans.

In August 2009, NJ Transit conducted an alternative site analysis that ranked nine locations for a ferry berthing and maintenance facility. The top ranking was given to the Hoboken Terminal followed by two Weehawken locations. Also in 2009, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection granted a waterfront permit to NJ Transit, the owner of the 80-acre Hoboken Terminal property, a major regional transportation hub, to locate the ferry facility there. The permit approvals included detailed plans for where the refueling, berthing and maintenance activities would be located. These plans, however, were never realized.

Governor Murphy, the New Jersey Department of Transportation and NJ Transit continue to stress the critical role that ferries play in the regional transportation system. Yet nothing has been revealed to the public about where the ferry facility might be located if Weehawken declines to accept the facility. Alternate sites such as the Hoboken Terminal just for the storage of the twenty ferries could have made the Union Dry Dock lease more palatable to Hoboken.

At the February 1st meeting of the Hoboken City Council, when the lease ordinance passed on first reading, dozens of kayakers and paddleboarders showed up to express their concerns. The Hoboken Cove Community Boathouse is located in Maxwell Place Park, just above a natural sand beach, directly north of the Union Dry Dock site. The Boathouse operates an all-volunteer program that allows people to kayak in the Hudson River in the protected Hoboken Cove. This free program serves thousands of people each year. The public speakers pointed out that the NY Waterway ferry captains frequently ignore the rules, fail to provide radio warnings and travel at speeds that generate dangerous wakes. Many attending that night expressed the fear that locating the ferry facility could bring an end to this unique kayaking program.

At the Wednesday, February 15th meeting, the Hoboken City Council also approved a contract with Dattner Architects that would lead a team of professional firms to design a new park at Union Dry Dock. The Mayor has announced that this park could be built beginning in 2025 on the unleased portion of the site. Unfortunately, that would be less than an acre of land and the proposals for a living shore line, a maritime museum on a barge and a floating swimming pool as well as the last portion of the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway in Hoboken would have to be put on hold until NY Waterway vacates the site.

Council members voting in favor of the lease claimed that if not approved that night, a deadline would be missed and it would prompt NY Waterway to initiate a court challenge to the eminent domain action. Several council members asserted that the court could force Hoboken to pay substantially more for the property. Councilman DeFusco made a wild claim that the property could be worth $40 million despite the fact that the City’s assessor valued the property at $13.36 million and NY Waterway’s assessment came in at $25 million. The most recent purchase price for Union Dry Dock in 2017 was $11.5 million. The site is zoned only for industrial use.

Before expressing their concerns, several speakers thanked Mayor Bhalla for his leadership in the long battle to prevent NY Waterway and NJ Transit from making Union Dry Dock a permanent location for refueling and maintaining a ferry fleet. But many also criticized the City for a lack of transparency and public engagement on the lease issue and for the failure to make public the settlement agreement between the City and NY Waterway.

The Union Dry Dock site would complete one of the final missing links in Hoboken’s waterfront park. The idea for a continuous park along the Hudson River was first proposed by FBW with its 1990 Plan for the Hoboken Waterfront. FBW’s 32 years of advocacy has transformed Hoboken’s former industrial waterfront into a beloved public space stretching for most of the city’s 1.5-mile long coastline.