The National Park Service has put together a “secret panel” – quietly and without publicity -- to evaluate what many regard as its almost criminal destruction of 78 Fort Hancock buildings for the past 36 years.
The Park Service tried 10 years ago to privatize and commercialize one-third of Fort Hancock when it chose James Wassel to rehab and rent out 36 buildings, but his two alleged contracts were cancelled last year for lack of funds. When the commercialization triggered public outcries, the Park Service deceitfully claimed public hearings on their plan weren’t necessary because they had been held in the mid-1970s. That, of course, was a lie.
The Park Service then refused to reveal the details behind their inept decision, just as they seem to be ducking public scrutiny today with their “secret panel.” What are they hiding this time?
While the Park Service plods and plots, here is a simple plan to slow Fort Hancock’s destruction.
First, reveal the identities of these “secret” panelists and open up their deliberations to the public.
Second, reveal the identities of those who are behind this panel. Are they Wassel supporters?
Third, the Park Service should develop now what it should have developed 36 years ago -- a coordinated three-stage maintenance plan – it’s not a rehab plan (OK, I know the Park Service has proven planned maintenance isn’t its forte, but I can fantasize, can’t I?):
- Short-term, clean out all the buildings and board them up.
- Mid-term, stabilize them on a “best-case-first” basis, repairing roofs and windows, propping up collapsing porch roofs, and painting deteriorating wood trim.
- Long-term, decide what it will do with buildings that clearly are beyond rehabilitation.
- This plan should be implemented before the Park Service revises its general management plan for Gateway, least they rig that plan to justify future commercial drive-bys.
The planning process should include:
- Reaffirming it has no intention of permitting commercial tenants whose activities have nothing to do with the core mission of the National Parks, which some mis-managers still speak of sotto voce.
- Inviting evicted environmental and other non-profit groups to return to the Fort, a plan proposed by Rep. Frank Pallone but ignored by the Park Service.
- Forming a committee of state, county and municipal officials to explore using buildings by government agencies.
- Forming a citizens’ committee to recruit non-profits that don’t need a year-round facility or can’t afford commercial rents elsewhere.
Rents and rehab rules should not be structured on the Park Service’s quixotic quest for profits:
- Non-profits should be charged rents to recover the minimal expenses the Park Service as landlord would incur above and beyond normal park maintenance, because 36 years of deterioration make it impossible for non-profits to pay exorbitant rehab costs, then pay “fair market rents.”
- The “Secretary of the Interior’s Standards” -- Williamsburg-esque preservation rules that make repairs so prohibitive that more buildings remain neglected than protected -- should be waived for non-profits. New Jersey’s BOCA codes will suffice.
Meanwhile, the “secret panel’s” deliberations must be made public, unless the Park Service still plans to privatize and commercialize Fort Hancock to undo its failures. Otherwise, why the secrecy?