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High Tension Surrounds Jersey City High Line
Controversial development plans for an abandoned rail embankment pit preservation against smart growth
Proposed townhouses atop Jersey City's embankment stir controversy.
Courtesy Dean Marchetto Architects/A. Nelesson Assoc.

A battle over Jersey City’s 6th Street railway embankment—a half-mile-long, stone-walled city landmark that some are calling Jersey’s answer to the High Line—has pitted preservationists against smart-growth advocates in a complex row over development rights that has landed in the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Constructed in 1902 to carry freight to and from the Hudson River, the abandoned embankment sprawls 100 feet wide for six blocks, and like New York’s High Line has clear potential for reuse as public space in a greenway linking Jersey City with Philadelphia. “After seeing trails across the country,” said Tom Sexton, regional director of the Rails to Trails Conservancy, “the uniqueness of this space and what it could become as park space is clear.”

Rendering showing the embankment as a raised park.A vision of the Sixth Street embankment as a linear park.
Courtesy Embankment Preservation Coalition.

But reconciling that vision with development plans has sparked community debate. In 2005, developer Steve Hyman purchased the embankment from Conrail for $3 million, with plans to develop housing and a green pedestrian and bike link between the Hudson River and downtown. Dean Marchetto, Hyman’s architect, has drawn up nine proposals since 2004, ranging in size from 200 to 800 units. His favored plan, winner of a 2004 AIA New Jersey Smart Growth Award, calls for a continuous pedestrian greenway lined with townhouses.

The idea of dense development alarms preservation groups that want a project more fitted to the surrounding neighborhoods and with more emphasis on park space. “We’ve envisioned a habitat-oriented park and trail,” said Stephen Gucciardo, president of the Embankment Preservation Coalition. “In an effort to compromise, we support concentrated development on the easternmost segment and western at-grade parcels.”

One proposal calls for highrises to support 85 percent open space.In one development proposal, highrises allow for 85 percent open space on the embankment.
Courtesy Dean Marchetto Architects/A. Nelesson Assoc.

Hyman agrees that a park should be central—his proposals call for 50 to 85 percent open space—but when Jersey City officials opposed zoning changes for the project, Hyman countered with a court-approved, as-of-right plan with no park space that removes the embankment outright. Preservationists then successfully landmarked the embankment, and a hardship exemption for demolition was denied by the city.

At the core of a pending lawsuit over the project is whether the embankment was legally sold in the first place. On September 28, a federal judge sided with the developer, and an appeal has since been filed in federal court. Jersey City officials declined to comment.

“It’s going to take some time to weave its way through,” Hyman said of the project. He doesn’t know how the embankment may end up, but believes something will be built in the end. As he put it, “I have too much money in the fight to walk away.”

Branden Klayko