City Council Approves Transfer of Jersey City Public Land for Science Center Expansion

By David Cruz

The Liberty Science Center gets 650,000 visitors a year. But it’s an island unto itself, nestled next to a turnpike off-ramp on the fringe of Liberty State Park. But Sci Tech Scity — a proposed 16-acre, $276 million science center, research facility, school, hotel and residential development — would transform the area into a nationally-recognized science research and education village, with other tangible benefits for the community at large.

“Our mission is to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers and to create jobs in the sci tech sector,” said Liberty Science Center President and CEO Paul Hoffman.

It sounds great, and most everyone at this raucous council meeting said they liked the plan. The problem? The city wants to give the land away — 16 acres with Manhattan views — for $10, and that’s left critics angry.

“Not a lot of detail at all,” said Jersey City Education Association President Ron Greco. “Everything came out of left field. We’re sitting on one of the most valuable pieces of property in the world, and it’s not valueless. I’m not a realtor; I’m not a lawyer, but I know it’s not valueless. This is not 1985.”

But the land value is being overstated, say supporters of the plan.

“The fact of the matter is that this land hasn’t been purchased. No one’s even asked about it,” asserted Daniel LaFuente, assistant director of SciTech Scity. “Ten years ago someone was interested in purchasing the land and they eventually vacated it because of a number of problems with the land. You have view shed restrictions; you have a Spectra gas pipeline running through there. It’s very difficult to build in that site. It makes sense for us because we’re adjacent to the museum. I know Liberty State Park wouldn’t want some condo high-rise to go up there either.”

The often contrary Councilman Richard Boggiano voted no.

“I figure the value of the land is $5 million to $8 million an acre and with the reval coming, there’s enough problems in Jersey City,” he said. “We can’t give away 16 acres of land. They say, ‘We’re going to make money down the road.’ But I’m worried about now; not down the road.”

Short-sighted, said Mayor Steve Fulop. Making the city a center for science and technology is a win beyond dollars and cents, he said.

“The return is going to be thousands of kids that get educated to be leaders in science and math and that’s how we’re looking at it. We think that’s the responsible way,” Fulop said. “It’s not a partnership about making money, although we are financial partners in it but that’s not driving this. What’s driving this is the fact that we have the opportunity to attract minds from around the world that are leaders in science and technology and we’ll have them here in Jersey City, innovating.”

The city will get a cut of the profits, sufficient to the current appraised value of the property, on a diminishing scale, after the science center gets its investment back, around $78 million. It seemed all very complicated for some on the council, which led community members to say, “Whoa.”

“I get men and women at the back of this auditorium came down here with me,” said resident LaVern Washington. “They need jobs. These kids’ fathers and mothers need jobs. We need a project that we can educate our children.”

“My request is that the council would consider pausing on approving this and in fact vote no in order to give enough time to adequately collaborate with the community,” said resident Henry Gage.

But with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, the council majority decided there was no time to waste and, after a four-hour plus public hearing, voted six to three to go ahead with the plan. Whether politics trumped science this night remains to be seen.