LIVINGSTON, NJ — Livingston and Essex County officials were enthusiastic about the outcome of a productive public forum held on Thursday at Livingston Town Hall to gather residents’ input regarding the revitalization of Riker Hill Art Park (RHAP).
As mayor in 2016, current deputy mayor Al Anthony worked to receive a commitment from Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo to improve this 42-acre site, which is currently the highest point in Essex County and served as a U.S. Army Nike Missile Base until the county purchased it in 1974 and converted the buildings into studio space for 38 artists. Thursday was the start of what the Livingston council hopes will be a great working relationship with the county on this project.
The overall consensus in the room was that RHAP is unique to any other park in not only the county, but in New Jersey as well. The popular opinion among residents was to enhance the park while maintaining the natural and cultural elements of it—focusing on the arts, the walking paths and the views.
“In the last 15 years that I’ve served as county executive, one of my initiatives was improving our parks—we have the first county park system in the country, but prior to me being in office, they were totally neglected,” said DiVincenzo. “We had 17 parks when we started. Now we have 23 parks and that’s something we’re all very proud of. To me, when you improve a park, it’s about a quality of life, it’s about economic development and it’s about improving property values.”
The county executive had a negative experience when holding a similar meeting nearly ten years ago, where many Livingston residents expressed concern about noise, drainage, traffic and losing the uniqueness of the park. Although some of these continue to be concerns, DiVincenzo assured residents that restaurants, housing and athletic facilities were not being considered in this project, and asked only they keep an open mind.
Local artist, Arts Council of Livingston member and 25-year Livingston resident Hugh Mahon said there are “so many things that come together at RHAP” and that this project is an “incredible opportunity.” Although he agreed that the park needs landscaping and the buildings need to be addressed, he asked that the county not change too much.
“That park, at this point, is unique,” he said. “It’s unique because of the art that’s created there, it’s unique because of its historical value, it’s a unique place for people to walk their dogs, and in order to enhance its uniqueness…they don’t need to be changed. You can put up cherry trees, you can make ponds, you can do all kinds of things, but this park is unique and the artists who work there bring uniqueness to Essex County. This has an incredible amount of opportunity for people to recreate, for artists to flourish [and] to bring business to a town like Livingston. We need to make this work, [but] don’t mess with its uniqueness.”
Other residents and artists said they were enthusiastic about having a place like this as a focal point in the area and were thrilled to see how many people came out on Thursday to express their interest in the project.
Throughout the forum, common suggestions included expanding the sculpture park; reopening the fossil trail that was once utilized by school children; sprucing up the exterior of the existing buildings; installing low-level lighting, infrastructure and signage throughout the park; enhancing the landscaping; adding picnic tables; and creating a more specific lookout point.
Among the popular suggestions was adding informational signage, such as an astrology map, an educational tool along the dinosaur trail explaining the types of fossils that used to be found there, a plaque with the history behind the Nike missile base and more. Other suggestions included bringing in performing arts or offering movie nights by re-building the outdoor amphitheater and inviting food trucks rather than opening a restaurant.
Major concerns that were taken into account included traffic, excessive lighting and noise, drainage and evening entertainment. In addition to keeping the cultural aspects of the existing facility in mind, many also asked the county to consider the many animals that currently take up residence at RAHP.
The biggest concern among residents was that the small road that currently leads from a residential area up to the park cannot handle commercial traffic. Many called it a “ramp” or “path” rather than a road, and said that if there were to be any consideration for a high-density facility, this would be a major issue.
In addition to residents who live nearby RHAP and the artists in residence at it, other local dignitaries who spoke included the president of the Riker Hill Art Park Association, an art critic from The Star Ledger, members of the Livingston Environmental Commission, Livingston Open Space Committee and other local organizations and county freeholders.
Many expressed that DiVincenzo has proven himself during his years as county executive and said they were confident that he would take the residents’ concerns and ideas into account.
“When I go through RHAP, it’s probably one of the most beautiful places to watch the sunset here, it’s the highest point in Essex County and it’s a large parcel of land that can use a facelift,” said Essex County Freeholder Len Luciano, a Livingston native and resident of West Caldwell. “Joe D. doesn’t stop when he invests money into something […] and I think that’s the same thing here with Riker Hill. I think we need to start with some of the bare basics: make it safer, work on drainage and engineering, make it ADA compliant, maybe even have some low-level lighting…you just have to have some trust in your government officials.”
Luciano acknowledged the current Livingston council members for having the courage to put together a resolution with the county to consider a facelift to this hidden gem within the community. He also said he was “proud of all of the folks that had the courage to tell us what they’d like to see.”
“The one thing I can say that we’re not going to do is that we’re not going to waste the opportunity to spend money in Livingston,” he said. “The county exec has promised that he has allotted money for 2018 to do something up there, so we’re all going to put our heads together and make sure that it’s something that everyone in the community is going to look forward to enjoying, their children can enjoy, and it’s going to increase your property value.”
Essex County Freeholder and longtime Livingston resident Pat Sebold, who not only lives near the park but also serves on the Open Space Trust Fund advisory board, said she has been bothering DiVincenzo about enhancing RHAP for many years and looks forward to the day he presents a real plan to the advisory board to make it a desirable place in Essex County.
Livingston native Jill Denker noted that DiVincenzo, Sebold and other county officials saved the Essex County Turtle Back Zoo and expressed her confidence that the RHAP project would be no different. She was confident that the county would maintain an open line of communication with the residents to ensure that the current feel of RHAP is not lost in the process of making the park a destination for all to enjoy.
Joseph Perello of Suburban Consulting Engineers reiterated that there is currently nothing designed and that the county is still in the process of gathering input from residents. He and three of his teammates took diligent notes during the meeting and said that they would determine the priorities and begin the next stages of planning.
Mayor Ed Meinhardt thanked the county for not only supporting this project, but for agreeing to conduct this preliminary meeting with Livingston residents as well. He also thanked the many people who attended for having an open mind, sharing their thoughts and respecting the process.
Livingston Township Council members agreed that the revitalization of RHAP is going to be a special project and one that will be a huge asset to the township and the county.