Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Partnering in the Rehabilitation of Fort Hancock  

12-09-2015 17:35

Sandy Hook is a 1,600-acre, six-mile-long barrier beach peninsula in Monmouth County N.J. The tip of the Hook is the northern point along the Jersey Shore and guards the entrance to lower New York Harbor.

Sandy Hook was created and continues to be shaped by tides and currents. Its history has been dictated by its location at the entrance to the harbor of the nation’s greatest city. The forces of nature and man together have produced what is on the peninsula today.

In 1764 a group of New York City merchants built the Sandy Hook Lighthouse in hopes of better marking the Sandy Hook Channel and the entrance to New York Harbor. The light was held by the British throughout the Revolution and only evacuated by them along with the city itself after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. By 1817 the entire peninsula had been purchased by the federal government in recognition of its strategic importance to both commerce and harbor defense.

Fortifications were raised on Sandy Hook during the War of 1812 and again prior to the Civil War. In 1874 the U.S. Army established the Sandy Hook Proving Ground, America’s first military weapons testing area. Coastal guns and new weaponry were tested here until the Proving Ground was relocated to Aberdeen, Md., in 1919.

In 1895 Fort Hancock was established as a coastal defense post for the protection of New York Harbor, and soon the tip of the Hook was ringed with a series of concrete gun batteries. Over the decades, Fort Hancock’s harbor defenses included mortars, 12-inch guns, underwater mines, and anti-aircraft guns, and, in the 1950s, Nike missile batteries. It was only with the development of nuclear submarines and ICBMs in the 1970s that the mission of the post came into doubt.

In the 1960s the southern portion of Fort Hancock was leased to the state of New Jersey, and for 10 years its beaches were open for swimming and operated as Sandy Hook State Park. In 1974 Fort Hancock was closed, the entire peninsula was transferred from the U.S. Army to the National Park Service, and Sandy Hook became part of the new Gateway National Recreation Area. Gateway NRA, the National Park Service’s first urban park, was created to bring the National Park experience to urban residents. It encompasses more than 26,000 acres of former military posts, airfields, landfills, and nature refuges around New York Harbor in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and on Sandy Hook.

The Resources

The long years of military ownership have left a rich heritage on Sandy Hook. Nearly two centuries of federal protection assured that Sandy Hook’s Atlantic Ocean beaches and much of its back dunes would remain undeveloped. Across the peninsula along Sandy Hook Bay, large stretches of salt marshes remain. Today Sandy Hook is one of the premiere birding sites in New Jersey, with more than 300 species identified and its beaches serving as critical nesting grounds for the federally endangered piping plover.

The park’s proximity to the 18 million residents of the New York–New Jersey metropolitan area leads to heavy recreational use. Sandy Hook receives more than 2.2 million visitors a year, more than half during the summer when a busy Sunday can attract more than 20,000 beach-goers. Through the rest of the year most visitors come from suburban New Jersey for fishing, bicycling, birding, and beachcombing.

The main reminders of Sandy Hook’s military past are its buildings and fortifications. The 1764 Sandy Hook Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse structure in the country, is a National Historic Landmark. In addition, in 1984 the entire peninsula was recognized as the Fort Hancock and Sandy Hook Proving Ground National Historic Landmark.

The Landmark includes 263 military sites ranging from gun batteries and memorials to buildings and landscapes. At the core of Fort Hancock is the historic parade ground surrounded by nearly 100 buildings including military barracks, recreation and mess halls, officers’ quarters, storehouses, and support buildings. Most of the temporary buildings added to the fort during the Second World War are gone; what remains is a nearly intact military post of buff brick buildings from the 1890s through the 1930s.

Early Preservation Efforts

When the National Park Service assumed responsibility for preserving Fort Hancock in 1974, it recognized both the scale and the complexity of the challenge. Park operations could use perhaps 40 of the 100 historic buildings that circle the parade ground. Partners and partner support would be needed to establish other activities and assure the preservation of the remaining buildings. The park’s 1979 General Management Plan spoke of creating a “Gateway Village” at Fort Hancock. Taking the place of the military community would be a campus of like-minded public and nonprofit educational, recreational, and research organizations drawn to historic Fort Hancock by the seashore environment of Sandy Hook. An early success was the establishment there of the Marine Academy of Science and Technology, a magnet high school for students interested in marine education operated by the Monmouth County Vocational School District. Today MAST encompasses a dozen rehabilitated buildings and is recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence and a New American High School, academic distinctions that are awarded to fewer than 1 percent of the public schools in America.

By the end of the 1980s, the Fort Hancock campus had grown to include MAST, a branch of the county community college, research offices of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration marine fisheries laboratory, as well as a handful of other educational and environmental groups. The National Park Service used the tools of the Day -- cooperative agreements and permits -- to accomplish the partnerships.

Despite these successes, more than 40 of Fort Hancock’s historic buildings still lay vacant including the largest and most problematic buildings at the post. These included a number of barracks and officers quarters, the post theater, and the Officers Club. The Fort Hancock Officers Club, a magnificent Second Empire–style structure began life in 1878 as the Bachelor Officers Quarters for the Sandy Hook Proving Ground before being converted to this use.

The deterioration of the vacant buildings that began with the departure of the military continued in the harsh seashore environment. Limited National Park Service funds were used primarily to support health, safety, and maintenance needs in occupied structures. Work in the vacant buildings was soon limited to an unending and losing battle to patch roofs and prevent water intrusion.

An amendment to the parks’ General Management Plan in 1990 recognized the initial successes as well as the need to draw private as well as public partnerships into the effort to save Fort Hancock. The village concept was retained, but the idea of including private or corporate elements on the Fort Hancock campus was added.

Initial thoughts centered on the development of a conference center, but these proved infeasible due in part to the difficulties presented by New Jersey winters and the challenge of working with buildings spread across 140 acres. A more mixed use seemed to offer the best chance of success.

Developing Private Partners

Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Sandy Hook superintendent at the time, Charles Baerlin, led the effort to create new partnerships for the preservation of Fort Hancock. An initial focus was to demonstrate the possibilities of the buildings and the value that a rehabilitated Fort Hancock would provide the community. Toward that end, the Sandy Hook Foundation, the park’s friends group, was recruited to lead a fundraising effort to rehabilitate and return to use the Fort Hancock Post Theater. The 300- seat movie house was built in 1934 as a Works Progress Administration project. It was only occasionally used by the National Park Service and by 1995 had been closed for nearly 20 years. By matching federal funds with county and private dollars, the most critical health, safety, utility, and structural deficiencies were addressed and the Post Theater reopened to mark the start of Fort Hancock’s second century.

The Sandy Hook Foundation agreed not only to lead the fundraising effort but also assume the role of theater manager. The Post Theater has become a venue for music, live theater, and lectures, as well as home to the theater department of Henry Hudson Regional School, a local high school which had previously used its gymnasium for performances. The benefits are not only the rehabilitation of the building but increased use of the theater by the community.

During this same time the National Park Service developed a Cultural Landscape Report for Fort Hancock, as well as draft rehabilitation guidelines, and paint and sign plans, which would be available to guide future development.

In August 1999 the National Park Service issued a Request for Proposals for the leasing, rehabilitation, and adaptive use of Fort Hancock’s vacant buildings. The RFP identified 32 buildings available for lease and an additional 16 potentially available. The buildings included barracks, warehouses, the Officers Club, theater, chapel, canteen, and bakery as well as 17 quarters along “Officers Row” overlooking the parade ground and Sandy Hook Bay.

Three goals were identified in the RFP:

1. To create a year-round community of educational, research, and recreational organizations with common goals and an appreciation of Fort Hancock’s unique seashore and historic setting. The buildings should be returned as much as practical to their original uses as office and meeting spaces, transient lodging, and recreation and entertainment venues.

2. To ensure the preservation of the historic structures through compatible adaptive uses.

3. To provide for the timely occupancy of the buildings, ensure their adequate maintenance and preservation, and generate long-term revenues to support Fort Hancock.

Twenty-two proposals were received and in November 2000 two organizations were selected for lease negotiations. The first was the American Littoral Society, a long-time resident, for continued use of an Officers Row house as offices. The second was Sandy Hook Partners, which proposed a plan for using all the offered buildings in a mixed use of office, education, and hospitality functions. No new building construction was proposed.

The park has now completed a draft lease agreement with Sandy Hook Partners. The agreement is for a 60-year lease of 36 vacant post buildings with no new construction. In addition to the investment needed for the rehabilitation of the buildings, Sandy Hook Partners will pay to the National Park Service an escalating percentage of gross revenue. The Partners, as well as all other tenants, will also pay an annual fee in lieu of taxes to support common services provided by the NPS, such as roadway maintenance and fire and law enforcement protection. The lease also restricts uses to a mix of office, education, or hospitality. Hospitality functions will include food services and bed and breakfast accommodations. The NPS must approve all tenants.

In many cases, the historic uses of the buildings would be returned. The Officers Club would be lodging and a restaurant, and several Officers Row houses would be B & B facilities. The barracks and warehouse spaces would remain largely open, converted into meeting and research spaces.

An environmental assessment for the project has also been completed and is now in public review. The assessment, utilizing many of the concepts in the Fort Hancock Rehabilitation Guidelines, identifies character-defining features for both the buildings and landscapes in the National Landmark. It also identifies two alternative design treatments for the return or addition of landscape elements needed to accommodate the adaptive uses of the buildings. One alternative utilizes historic precedents for new lighting, signing, painting, and plantings features. The second would utilize compatible contemporary design elements.

Public Reactions

Public interest in the project has been great. More than 1,000 people have attended open houses and public meetings on the proposal. The reactions have pointed out the challenges of including the interests and concerns of a variety of constituencies.

Nearly all recognize and support the effort to preserve the historic resources at Fort Hancock, but equally important to the public and others is the assurance that the rehabilitation and adaptive uses that follow would not jeopardize Sandy Hook’s natural and recreational resources and opportunities.

The greatest potential for impact on the natural environment will come from the need to provide parking areas to support the adaptive uses. Sandy Hook has about 5,000 parking spaces and the assessment proposes no increase in that number. To accommodate the new needs, a 650-car parking area adjacent to a rich bird habitat would be eliminated and replaced by a series of six smaller lots that ring Fort Hancock. These would be shared by Fort Hancock’s office and educational users on weekdays and be open to beach users on weekends.

Of equal public concern is habitat preservation. The assessment assures 1:1 mitigation in the lands disturbed by construction of parking areas and commits to restoring the former six-acre parking lot as a high quality birding habitat.

Concerns about traffic generated not only inside the park but on local roadways has also been a subject of discussion. So have concerns, both operational and philosophical, about “privatization” and “commercialism” and the role of a private developer in a national park. On one hand, many recognize and support the concept that monies from private partners can accomplish preservation goals while saving taxpayer dollars. On the other hand, there is a belief by others that preservation of our national past, particularly in a national park, is inherently a responsibility of the federal government.

The final chapter in the story of Fort Hancock is still being written. The best lessons may be that, in any effort at adaptive use -- particularly in a public park important to the community in so many ways -- you must be clear in your goals, foster lines of communication, and remain responsive to input.

Publication Date: Summer 2002

#NationalParkService #ForumJournal

Author(s):Lou Venuto