2013-11-28 / Front Page

NPS: Interest high in Fort Hancock properties

By KEITH HEUMILLER
Staff Writer


The historic housing units stand along Officer’s Row at Fort Hancock, shortly after superstorm Sandy last year. The National Park Service is currently marketing a number of historic properties at the fort to private entities that will restore and occupy them. 
KEITH HEUMILLER/STAFF The historic housing units stand along Officer’s Row at Fort Hancock, shortly after superstorm Sandy last year. The National Park Service is currently marketing a number of historic properties at the fort to private entities that will restore and occupy them. KEITH HEUMILLER/STAFF Businesses, nonprofits and even residents have expressed an interest in potentially leasing historic properties at Fort Hancock, a National Historic Landmark District on the northern tip of Sandy Hook.

According to National Park Service (NPS) spokesman John Warren, there has been a significant level of both local and national interest in the fort’s 36 historic military buildings, which are currently being marketed for reuse and redevelopment.

“There has been interest from individuals who are seeking family residences, from not-for-profits and professionals inquiring about office space and from commercial entities, as well,” Warren said on Nov. 20, after spending an hour on the phone with a potential lessee. “I’m very impressed with not only the quantity, but the quality of the ideas and questions we have received.”

The buildings — many of which languished in a state of disrepair long before superstorm Sandy ravaged the 120-year-old fort last year — are being marketed in an effort to preserve them, he said.

Citing a limited federal budget and an inability to renovate and maintain the buildings on tax dollars alone, the NPS has deemed the 36 properties excess to the needs of the Gateway National Recreation Area, which includes Sandy Hook and two parks across the bay in New York.

In September 2012, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior appointed 20 local officials and industry experts to the Fort Hancock 21st Century Advisory Committee, a public body tasked with steering the future of the fort. Late last month, the committee released a request for expressions of interest (RFEI) in the excess buildings and began recruiting private partners to take them over.

“Buildings are best-preserved when they are in use,” Warren said, explaining that there are more than 600 historic buildings within the Gateway area. “It is simply impossible for the NPS to be able to care for them as we would want to, in the way that they deserve. This is our last, best chance of preserving historic Fort Hancock.”

The redevelopment of Fort Hancock has been a controversial topic for more than a decade.

In 1999, the NPS selected James Wassel of Rumson to renovate and commercially redevelop more than 30 of the historic buildings, touching off a wave of opposition from local activist groups and elected officials such as U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-Monmouth).

The opposition continued for nearly a decade, and the deal fell apart in 2009 due to financial issues.

Warren said those comments and criticisms have helped inform this latest initiative, which is more open and accessible to the general public.

“We learned a lot from that past experience,” he said. “We learned that the process has to be as transparent as possible. That’s why the [21st Century] committee is so important.”

Through the committee’s public meetings and website, residents can easily submit comments and review any documents regarding potential new uses for Fort Hancock, Warren said.

Another change has been the NPS’ adamant refusal to allow new construction at the fort. According to the RFEI, the NPS will consider proposals from one or a number of different parties, and the work could include the expansion and demolition of certain existing buildings.

Regardless of the proposed uses, Warren said the NPS is legally bound to protect the “integrity of the buildings and the historic landscape.” “We want to keep it looking the way it looks,” he said.

On Nov. 8, the NPS hosted an open house at the fort, taking an estimated 100 people on a tour of select buildings that are eligible for reuse, including some mess hall buildings, the former hospital steward’s building and former housing units on Officer’s Row. The group also toured the current home of local nonprofits American Littoral Society and Clean Ocean Action, which Warren called a “wonderful” example of a repurposed historical building.

Warren declined to provide specifics on the entities that have expressed interest in occupying the buildings, but said one discussed the possibility of establishing a bed-andbreakfast. One couple had come from as far away as Florida for the open house, he added, but he saw “a lot of 732 area codes” on the sign-in sheet. Another open house was planned for Nov. 22.

After some members of the committee and the public had expressed concerns earlier this year that it would be difficult to drive interest in the fort, Warren said he is now “very optimistic.”

“I feel like the open house was a turning point,” he said.

The NPS will continue to accept expressions of interest through Dec. 16. The finalized record — which would include the various entities, requested uses, available resources, and other information gathered from the expressions of interest and multiple open houses — will be discussed by the 21st Century Advisory Committee during its next meeting on Jan. 10.

The next step would be a request for more formal proposals, which Warren said may be sent out in early 2014.

The 21st Century committee’s website can be accessed at www.forthancock21stcentury.org.

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