Commentary: Greystone open space bill won’t get taxpayers off the hook

Editor’s note: The opinions presented below do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

Submitted by Preserve Greystone

State Senators Joe Pennacchio (R-26th Dist.) and Anthony Bucco (R-25th Dist.) have introduced legislation providing that remaining Greystone property owned by the State, and declared as surplus, can only be sold to Morris County.

The full text has not been released, but the Senators’ statement about the bill, S3112, makes no mention of the massive historic structures on the site, including the 1876 Kirkbride Building.

The main building at Greystone, a former psychiatric hospital that treated patients for more than a century. Photo by Berit Ollestad

The main building at Greystone, a former psychiatric hospital that treated patients for more than a century. Photo by Berit Ollestad

No government entities, including Morris County, have the wherewithal or imagination to renovate and re-use this unique structure.

But the private sector has expressed interest in re-purposing it, and other historic structures on the site as well, thus preserving them for future generations, and sparing taxpayers the terrible costs of their destruction.

The Christie administration had been pursuing private redevelopment of the existing historic structures on the site, but for reasons that are not clear, failed to follow through, changed course, and did their best to create the perception that it was financially “infeasible” for the private sector to make a go of it.

This was evident as early as last April, when they released the results of a feasibility study. They later declined to engage in any dialogue with private developers whose expressions of interest they had solicited, and instead pronounced, in August, that no one could make a go of it.

It is not known who, if anyone, helped the State make this determination, but the notion that “it can’t be done” by the private sector has proved unsupportable in the face of undeniable interest from well funded private entities with experience in re-purposing this type of building.

Having failed to make the case that private redevelopment of the existing historic structures on the site “can’t be done,” the State is now apparently trying to change the rules, so that private redevelopment of the existing historic structures on the site will not be allowed. The Senators’ bill effectively precludes private re-development of the existing historic structures on the site by limiting ownership to Morris County.

John Huebner, of the all-volunteer group Preserve Greystone, had this to say: “The Senators’ statement touts the value of open space, but it is hard to imagine a less appropriate, or more costly locale for ‘open space’ than the site of a massive and exquisite historic structure. It’s hard to see any benefit for the taxpayers here.”

Greystone Park has belonged to the State for 140 years, and no matter what happens, the taxpayers are on the hook for remediating hazardous materials from the State’s remaining portion of the campus. A responsible cleanup will cost tens of millions of dollars, and this is a necessity. Hazmat remediation must be done before anything else can happen, and the site cannot be allowed to continue festering.

But according to Huebner, demolition of the existing structures, which would cost tens of millions more in taxpayer dollars, is not a necessity.

“Throwing extra taxpayer money at these historic structures simply to make them ‘go away,’ when private money is available to preserve them for future generations is simply unconscionable, especially in these times of severe fiscal constraint.”

He continued: “Aside from taxpayer costs for demolition, and taxpayer costs for turning the resulting demolition wasteland into usable parkland, there is also the cost of lost opportunity for the local economy to consider. There are few more potent engines of economic development than the renovation of old buildings.”

Failure to redeem a local icon also exacts a cost on public morale. This may be the hardest factor of all to quantify, but maybe the most important. People rightly value their history – good, bad or indifferent, and the near universal response to the prospect of the Kirkbride’s demise is, “what a shame,” “what a waste,” “too bad they couldn’t find a way to do something with it.”

But it doesn’t have to be a shame.

“Private re-development of the historic structures on this site presents an opportunity to take something that has been an enormous presence in the community and make it into something to be proud of,” Huebner said.

The importance of tangible reminders of our history is well established. When historic structures are brought forward into contemporary relevance, it literally makes history real.

Shame may be the thumb on the “demolition side” of the scales. It is apparently what informed the Morris County Freeholder’s decision, in 2006, to take away the name of their newly acquired portion of the Greystone Park campus because of the “stigma attached to it.” Citing the campus’s “hideous legacy,” they began calling it “Central Park” instead.

According to Preserve Greystone Trustee Adam McGovern,“That type of denial does nothing to correct the wrongs of the past, nor does it provide any opportunity to learn from the past. It allows no opportunity for redemption. It simply feeds and perpetuates the stigma.”

According to Pennachio, “We have already made great progress turning the Greystone property into open space for future and current generations to enjoy. This bill assures that process will continue.”

Bucco and Pennachio’s statement about the bill makes no mention of the enormous costs that will be borne, either by the taxpayers, or by private interests, for dealing with the enormous historic structures on the Greystone site.

According to McGovern, “The Senators’ statement totally ignores them, apparently in the hopes that they will just ‘go away,’ thus fulfilling the vision of the so-called ‘Central Park of Morris County,’ whereby massive historic structures are razed, and history is buried and forgotten, all at hideous taxpayer expense.”

”There’s nothing wrong with ballfields, or anything else the County has put there,” Huebner said, “but there has to be a more reasonable location for these facilities than the site of massive masonry buildings. Discomfort about Greystone’s history as a mental institution is understandable, but the proper remedy for that discomfort is an examination of our attitudes towards mental illness, not the destruction of public property that reminds us of it.”

“In addition to being fiscally irresponsible, the idea of tearing down the Kirkbride Building just to be rid of it, and sweeping its rubble under the rug (or in this case, the lawn) is an affront to our forbearers,” Huebner continued.

“They made a massive investment in compassion and community, and bequeathed to us a beautiful and durable edifice. Condemning it as something shameful is a disservice to seven generations of our people who have walked its halls — as patients, staff, family, and volunteers.”

“Limiting ownership of this public heirloom to Morris County essentially condemns it to demolition,” McGovern added. “That’s a bad deal for the taxpayers, and its a disservice to future generations, both in the loss of historic context, and the loss of energy and natural resources embodied in an enormous stone building. It would be a terrible waste.”

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Comments

  1. …what a place…lived around and worked there so many years…from a 10 year old catching the bus to school right there at the cow barns, to working the farm during my college years, to running the Recreation Dept and the Art and music Studios….This is an amazing structure and CAN be utilized again!!! Don’t knock it down!!!! …my services as a musician are there to raise awreness about this….Keep the fight going John! ….We are are with you!! Grover kemble

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