JERSEY CITY, NJ - Helping to celebrate the arrival of spring, public officials gathered with preservationists, boy scouts and others to break ground on the restoration of Reservoir No. 3 in Jersey City Heights on April 17.

Located next to Pershing Field between Summit and Central Avenue, the project comes after decades of debate over what to do with the site – which is a state and federal landmark.

The $6 million investment will fully fund restoration that will allow complete public access to the 14-acre site.

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Ceasing operation around 1910, the reservoir was constructed just after the end of the American Civil War in 1870 in order to accommodate the growing need for fresh water in an urban area – and involved a completed pumping system that brought water to Jersey City from the Passaic River.

Several proposals for what to do with the site were brought forward in past decades, Mayor Steven Fulop said at the groundbreaking, including knocking it down and redeveloping the property. “This has been discussed for more than 30 years,” he said.

The demolition of the property was proposed in 2003, but local preservationists, park advocates, and others formed the Jersey City Reservoir Preservation Alliance and managed to stop the destruction. This group succeeded in getting the site, surrounded by a large stone wall with gates on the north and south sides, registered as a landmark.

People who pass the site are generally not aware of just how different the interior is, a lost world filled with wildlife and fauna. Large white egrets launch from the water like ancient dinosaurs, while geese, ducks and many other birds cruise the shoreline.

“This doesn’t feel like a densely populated area,” Fulop said. “This takes you somewhere else.” Fulop gave credit to deceased Councilman Michael Yun who had also pushed for the restoration of the area as an environmental park.

Ward D Councilman Yousef Saleh called the reservoir “the crown jewel” of Jersey City.

Fishermen have used the large lake for years, casting off from just inside the Jefferson Avenue gate, or from the stone steps of the pump house building along the east side.

Boy Scouts from Troop 466 have long used it as a destination for their adventures and learning while students from nearby P.S. 28 have used the lake and its environs for various scientific studies, including establishing a bat nesting sanctuary in one of its buildings. Some of the classes have even engaged in experiments setting up machines that would help control mosquito populations.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, students could often be seen making their way through the maze of phragmites, checking on solar equipment they have set up in remote locations, documenting the progress of wildlife, conducting experiments involve drinking water, and creating good uses for waste products such as wind chimes made from plastic bottles. 

As amazing as all this sounds, the place has remained largely inaccessible to the general public. While a rough path exists around the lake, it is somewhat challenging in some spots, requiring scouts or students to climb using ropes. Another path leads to the bat preserve, a building that is accessible only by afragile bridge with crumbling wooden planks supported by rusted metal.

Fulop himself once proposed making it into a theme park, using funding that would be generated from a trash transfer station in Greenville, proposing public outcry from residents in Greenville. More recently, the city wanted to implement a site safety plan that activists claimed would destroy the ecology and would be detrimental to the area’s wildlife that includes owls, hawks, songbirds, turtles, groundhogs, muskrats, duck and herons.

The city has argued that the place is deteriorating, some plants undermining the integrity of the wall and other aspects of the park and that the intervention can be done without destroying the intimate feel of the preserve.

While the project will lead to the removal of  some plants,  the city came up with a replanting plan that would help restore or improve on what will be lost. The project will widen the existing upper trail, install public access ramps and install lighting along the trail.

The funding will come partly from grants, as well as from the Hudson County Open Space Trust Fund, the New Jersey Historic Trust, state Green Acres funds, as well as the Jersey City Open Space Trust Fund.

Although there were times when the city and preservationists did not see eye to eye on aspects of the project, Paula Mahayosnand, president of the Jersey City Preservation Committee, called the project a collaboration between the Fulop Administration and the Reservoir Preservation Alliance.

Mahayosnand said there was strong community input that helped preserve important environmental aspects of the reservoir’s landscape.