A New Sports Facility Jeopardizes Rahway River Park


A New Sports Facility Jeopardizes Rahway River Park

A New Sports Facility Jeopardizes Rahway River Park
Oct 02, 2015
Margaret M. Hickey
Rahway River Park, designed by Olmsted Brothers - Photo courtesy of The Coalition to Save Historic Rahway River Park, 2015


Located in Union County, New Jersey, Rahway River Park is a key component of the Union County Park System. Designed by Olmsted Brothers between 1921 and 1929, the park is distinctive for the expansive views from its large central lawn, ringed by trees and tucked within a bend of the Rahway River. The deputy state historic preservation officer of New Jersey has formally declared in writing the park’s eligibility for listing in the New Jersey and the National Registers of Historic Places. But the Freeholders of Union County and the Rahway Board of Education now plan to expand an existing field and track to create a new sports complex within the park, one that would interrupt the viewsheds and sight lines of the original design and transform an historic neighborhood haven into a venue for interscholastic spectator sports.


Faced with a surging population and the prospect of rapid development in the early twentieth century, the citizens of Union County, New Jersey, sought to make provisions for open spaces and to protect the Rahway River, the key potable water source in the area. They created the Union County Parks Commission in 1921, which engaged the firm Olmsted Brothers to advise on a way forward. The firm proposed a county-wide system of urban and suburban parks, including a reservation in the mountains (Watchung Reservation) and a series of parkways along the Elizabeth and Rahway Rivers, all of which would provide ample space for recreational opportunities. The proposed parkways were to become the distinguishing feature of the system, serving as the linkages between the various neighborhood parks.

Rahway River Park walking trails, designed by Olmsted Brothers - Photo courtesy of The Coalition to Save Historic Rahway River Park, 2015

As the plans became a reality, Percival Gallagher guided the firm’s work, which included the creation of Rahway River Park, one of the four neighborhood parks in the overall plan. The 124-acre park is cradled by the Rahway River, which serves as a backdrop and a natural buffer from the nearby houses to the north and west. The expansive greensward at the center of the park offers uninterrupted views in all directions and is skirted by a walkway shaded by a steady, rhythmic tree line. Encircling the walkway is a perimeter road bordered by an even denser tree line that isolates the park from its neighbors. In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration installed a swimming pool in the southwestern section of the park, the first such swimming pool in a public park in the United States. The central green space was dotted with informal ball fields and a running track, while tennis courts were added near the pool. Picnic and play areas were concealed among stands of mature trees around the edges of the park.

Olmsted Brothers was a logical choice to design parks for Union County, because John Charles Olmsted, one of the firm’s founding partners, had guided the creation of the nation’s first county-wide park system in neighboring Essex County, New Jersey, in 1895. He and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., established Olmsted Brothers in 1898 after the retirement of Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., the “Founding Father” of American landscape architecture. The Olmsted Brothers firm designed park systems for several major cities, including Atlanta, Boston, and Seattle, and it was by far the largest landscape architectural practice in the country in the early years of the twentieth century.

Rahway River Park, Clark, NJ - Photo courtesy The Coalition to Save Historic Rahway River Park, 2015


In March 2015, Union County proposed to expand an existing field and track within Rahway River Park in order to create a 5000-seat stadium for use primarily by Rahway High School’s football team. The plan calls for the installation of stadium lighting, bleachers, and fencing, as well as a field house, restrooms, locker rooms, and a concessions stand. After a wave of negative reaction, the capacity of the stadium was reduced to 1,200 seats; but the footprint of the regulation-size track and artificial-turf field remains the same. The imposition of such a sports complex on the greensward would destroy the open sight lines that characterized Olmsted Brothers’ original design, and recast the park as a sports venue suited to a narrow constituency. By creating a track, field, and support facilities to serve the interests of the Rahway Board of Education, the County is contradicting its own assertions that its parks are for the benefit of all. Along with the adverse effect the proposed additions would have on other activities in the park, it is clear that the park’s 410 parking spaces could not accommodate such a sports complex for long. The County’s suggestion that spectators could be bussed in from elsewhere—hardly a viable long-term solution—does little to allay fears that more green space would be ceded to parking in the future.    

How You Can Help

Contact the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders and urge the County to stop plans for the expansion of the track and field at Rahway River Park, and to instead implement steps to protect and preserve the park. 

Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders
10 Elizabethtown Plaza
Elizabeth, NJ 07207

Contact the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and urge them to oppose the County’s proposed plans through the protections afforded by the Green Acres program. 

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection
401 E. State Street, 7th Floor, East Wing
P.O. Box 402Trenton, NJ 08625-0402

Sign the following petition:
Save Historic Rahway River Park at Change.org

Give to the Coalition to Save Historic Rahway River Park, a nonprofit organized to defray the cost of legal action against the Union County Freeholders and the Rahway Board of Education over their plans for the park development:

The Coalition to Save Historic Rahway River Park
14 Commerce Drive, Suite 303
Cranford, NJ 07016