Guest Column Russel J. Wilson Partnership will breathe life into Fort Hancock

Guest Column
Russel J. Wilson
Partnership will breathe life into Fort Hancock

Thank you for the chance to respond to the recent editorial in the Atlanticville and Hub about the historic leasing program under way at the Fort Hancock area of Sandy Hook. Sandy Hook is a unit of Gateway National Recreational Area, one of more than 380 national park areas in the country.

Historic Fort Hancock is one of the most intact coastal defense military posts in the nation. Its history of defending the entrance to New York Harbor began in the 1890s and continued through the cold war Nike missile era of the 1970s. During World War II, more than 18,000 troops were stationed at Fort Hancock. Today, the fort complex is recognized as a national historic landmark, with more than 230 historic structures ranging from military barracks and warehouses to concrete gun batteries and Nike radar platforms.

The core of Fort Hancock is approximately 140 acres of the 1,665 acres of Sandy Hook parklands otherwise protected as a natural and recreational environment. With more than 100 buildings, this area has been identified for adaptive reuse since the National Park Service first began administering Sandy Hook in the mid-1970s.

The concept of creating a "Gateway Village" for adaptive reuse was formalized in the 1979 General Management Plan for Gateway National Recreation Area. The 1990 General Management Plan Amendment for the Sandy Hook unit reaffirmed the adaptive reuse plan and identified a partnership between the National Park Service and private entities as the way to make it happen. Both of these planning efforts were the subject of extensive public review and comment.

The goal has always been to assure the long-term preservation of these historic military buildings by adapting them for a variety of compatible uses. The James J. Howard Marine Laboratory, Brookdale Community College Oceanographic Institute, the N.J. Marine Sciences Consortium and the Marine Academy of Science and Technology have been our partners in adaptive reuse for more than 20 years. This winter, we will add another partner when the N.J. Audubon Society joins us following its rehabilitation of the historic hospital steward’s quarters as the Sandy Hook Bird Observatory.

We began an effort to further the adaptive reuse of Fort Hancock’s buildings through the National Park Service’s historic leasing authority in 1998. This authority allows for the leasing of excess historic properties in national parks for compatible uses to both public and private groups.

Deterioration was accelerating on many of the buildings in the core of the fort. Restoring these buildings was an expensive proposition the National Park Service could not afford (estimates have ranged from $65-$90 million). Once restored, year-round tenants would be needed to maintain the buildings and keep them heated through Sandy Hook’s taxing winters. As one comment would note, we needed to "breathe some life into these wonderful old structures."

As part of the historic lease process, the National Park Service developed a list of acceptable uses that included, among others, educational centers and professional office space.

The wheels of government may grind slowly, but they did not grind silently. In August 1998, the release of our "Request for Proposals" received front-page coverage in state and local papers; it was also covered by the New York City dailies including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. One newspaper that covered the request for proposals opined: "[T]his plan deserves to succeed. We all stand to benefit from the preservation of this national historic resource."

In the spring of 2000, two proposals were selected for negotiation. One was from the American Littoral Society that proposed a long-term lease for the building it presently occupies as offices. The second was a mixed-use proposal from Sandy Hook Partners. The proposal encompasses 36 now-vacant buildings that would be rehabilitated for overnight lodging, food service, offices and education and recreational facilities.

Four points of the Sandy Hook Partners proposal made it attractive. First was its comprehensive nature that assures all the endangered buildings offered in the RFF are rehabilitated, and the comprehensive treatment will ensure that the buildings retain their historic and picturesque uniform appearance. Second, their proposal envisioned a balanced variety of public and private uses. Third, the Partners had previous experience in historic rehabilitation and adaptive reuse. Last, they proposed no new construction to support the rehabilitation efforts.

The proposal by Sandy Hook Partners complements the research and education activities and the campus-like setting already in place at Fort Hancock. The grounds around the buildings, including the Pershing field parade ground, will remain open parkland for the public to enjoy. Attracting new educational and nonprofit institutions will benefit our neighboring communities.

An important element of their proposal — upgrading of telecommunications services to the fort — will benefit both new occupants and the education partners already at the fort. Another valuable addition for the public will be the development of new recreational services offered in the historic post-YMCA building.

The rehabilitation of historic buildings, including the officers club, mule barn and some of the officers row houses, for meeting space, restaurant and overnight accommodations will serve the fort tenants and also provide the opportunity for visitors to see and use buildings that have long been closed to the public.

We are now developing an environmental assessment (EA), that outlines the effects the adaptive reuse will have on the park, and to guide the rehabilitation of the historic buildings here. The EA will soon be available for public review, and we again look forward to comments and ideas.

We recognize Sandy Hook’s tremendous importance as both a recreational area and as a place to experience New Jersey’s natural and historic resources, and we are excited about the opportunities ahead.

Russel J. Wilson is superintendent of Gateway National Recreation Area, Sandy Hook