MONTCLAIR, NJ - The leading issue at Tuesday's Fourth Ward community meeting, was the proposed Essex-Hudson Greenway project that would transform a retired railway line from Montclair to Hoboken into a linear green space for walking, cycling, conservation and passive recreation.
Hosted by Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings, this was his second virtual community meeting with a few special guests joining him to talk about issues pertaining to the ward.
Essex County Commissioner (formerly Freeholder) Brendan Gill, a Montclair resident, and Debra Kagan, executive director of the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition, joined Councilor Cummings to explain the project as it currently stands. Commissioner Gill said that Norfolk Southern, which owns the railway line, is ready to enter an agreement with the Open Space Institute (OSI), which is in a partnership with the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition and the September 11 National Memorial Trail, to purchase the railway line. He called the potential sale a "once in a lifetime" opportunity to expand open space in the region, and Kagan said the project would create a greater sense of place.
"There's no doubt in my mind that it would be a huge benefit to our community," Commissioner Gill said of the project.
Kagan laid out the details of this opportunity. She said that the project would open up 135 acres of open space along the nine-mile route, connecting diverse and disparate communities between Montclair and Hoboken and improving the quality of life for all of them with spaces for recreation and conservation - all on a corridor 100 feet wide. The project, Kagan said, would connect trails and parks, give people greater access to green space, and provide increased mobility for more people, particularly young people, the elderly, and the disabled. She envisioned swales and rain gardens along the path to prevent flooding, as well as playgrounds and bicycle racks, and she added that the tree cover would provide more cooling temperatures for urbanized areas adjacent to the trail. Kagan also said that the greenway would be good for local businesses by providing economic activity, and it would also encourage more housing development and increase property values.
The deal is far from done, however. While the OSI has negotiated a purchase-and-sale agreement with Norfolk Southern, the sale has not been transacted, and Norfolk Southern is still free to sell the land to developers. Efforts to secure the rail line for a greenway have been persistent since the line was closed to rail traffic in the early two thousand zeroes. Commissioner Gill added that this acquisition would not get in the way of county funding for other priorities, saying that the county has an opportunity to help finance the project as well as maintain its commitment to existing parkland. Online links to information about the project and contact information to express support for it are included in a graphic attached to this article.
Resident William Scott sent in a comment regarding land values. He said he was concerned with the loss of affordable housing, as earlier projects in town like the Montclair Connection have eliminated some of it. Kagan said she was aware of how such projects can push out lower- and lower-middle income people, particularly with regard to raising property values, and she said she hopes she can start discussions with community leaders to ensure housing equity. Commissioner Gill interjected that he would not be supporting the greenway project if he thought it would lead to gentrification.
Councilor Cummings, for his part, said he would like to talk to the consultants for the project to see if he can get more information pertaining to equity. He added that it was imperative to see how the township can avoid the same mistakes made with regard to housing in earlier projects.
Closer to home, Councilor Cummings updated constituents on upgrades to Nishuane and Canterbury Parks, saying that plans are underway to put in new paths and benches, plant trees, and redo the basketball courts, with the work to begin late this summer. Councilor Cummings said he has also been in contact with the Glenfield Park Conservancy and other local groups to address the need to redo that county park. He said the groups have walked through Glenfield Park and determined that the pavilion area the walkways need redoing and that the glen area could be rehabilitated to make it a destination site.
Councilor Cummings also gave Zina Floyd, the owner of Café Moso in Montclair's South End Village, some time to address the activities in the South End business district. She said she opened Café Moso to preserve the history of the South End and "pull the community together." She said that there are ongoing efforts to beautify the area and also interest in reconfiguring the parking to allow a bicycle lane. Floyd also said there are also plans for an ice cream and produce store in a nearby vacant space run by high-school students in the South End business district to further enliven the area as part of an effort to keep a sense of community in place. The store will hopefully open next year.
Councilor Cummings also made note of upcoming events - a giveaway of tree seedlings at Nishuane Park on May 1 from 9:30 AM to 12 PM for Arbor Day and a Zoom town hall on April 29 at 7:30 to discuss COVID vaccines, which will include his predecessor, Dr. Renée Baskerville, as well as Dr. Chris Pernell of University Hospital. (Commissioner Gill said earlier in the meeting that the county is increasing its COVID vaccination efforts with mobile vaccine units.) Councilor Cummings also announced a new initiative to hire 20 high-school seniors at $15 per hour to clean up areas of the Fourth Ward on Saturdays between early June and early August. The "Clean Team," as Councilor Cummings calls it, is something he hopes will get adopted elsewhere in town.
The virtual meeting went off without a hitch, though there was one humorous snafu. As Debra Kagan explained the Essex-Hudson Greenway project, audio from Joy Reid's MSNBC program crept into her feed, and viewers could hear Reid's voice delivering commentary unrelated to the topic at hand.
"Thank you," Kagan joked.