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Mending Fences With a New Meadowlands Plan

By RONALD SMOTHERS | December 16, 2004

LYNDHURST, N.J., Dec. 15 - For the better part of three decades, the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission was an easy target for local elected officials. They complained that the commission, which was created by the state, robbed them of their home rule over development; was complacent in the face of Trenton's neglect; and deprived the municipalities of new commercial developments that could ease the burden of local property taxes.

The seven-member commission, created 35 years ago to oversee 32 square miles of former landfill and wetlands that touched on 14 municipalities, was seen as too aggressive, not aggressive enough or oblivious and removed - or sometimes all of those things at the same time.

But much of that has changed in recent years, say mayors, environmentalists and planners in the region. They say a body that once seemed autocratic and austere is reaching out to build consensus. And it, in turn, is being newly described as a steward of the Meadowlands' future.

On Wednesday, the commission took a step that is both symbol and substance of this change when they approved a five-year program earmarking $32 million of the commission's money to aid the localities in the commission's planning area. The money will go toward grants for the municipalities, creation of an employment center and establishment of a convention and visitors bureau whose major focus will be ecotourism for the wetlands.

The five-year plan also calls for creation of a regional transportation planning board and a bank specializing in redevelopment that will issue bonds for projects that seek to revive and reuse old and abandoned commercial sites in the 14 towns. The plan also designates preservation areas.

The commission was an early effort at regional planning and governance for an area that includes a half a million people. From the start, it was a daunting task in a state with a spaghetti tangle of 566 municipalities, 611 school districts, 400 local authorities and 21 counties, and in an area where home rule has been akin to a civil religion.

"In the past, it was like big brother watching over all of the municipalities who didn't know what was good for them," said State Senator Paul A. Sarlo, who represents the region and who also serves as the mayor of Wood-Ridge, a small community at the boundaries of the Meadowlands Commission territory.

Mr. Sarlo and others recalled times when elected officials, frustrated developers and environmentalists, who were usually antagonists in the battles over the Meadowlands, agreed on one goal: the need to abolish the commission.

"When you are talking to towns with 3,000 or 10,000 people, you can't be viewed as arrogant and not trustworthy, as they were viewed," said Fred Dressel, the mayor of Moonachie and chairman of the Meadowlands Mayor Committee, an advisory group to the commission.

"It was a shotgun wedding that originally brought the towns and the commission together, but early this year we renewed our vows in a happier atmosphere," Mayor Dressel added, referring to the adoption in January of the first revision of the commission's master plan in 30 years. That revision stressed redevelopment of brownfields and other developed sites rather than simply adding grand, new developments.

The plan created 10 redevelopment zones targeted for spending inside the towns and, to the glee of environmentalists, set aside 8,400 acres for preservation.

"We have a seat at the table now," said William Sheehan, who is the Hackensack Riverkeeper. He acknowledges that in the past his group opposed all development the Meadowlands, often butting heads with aggressive developers and ratables-hungry mayors who he said "see the environment as an asset now."

Susan Bass Levin, chairwoman of the commission, said in an interview that the commission had come a long way from the time when groups in the region could not talk to one other. Under the direction of its executive director, Robert Ceberio, the commission has worked at compromising rather than forcing things down the throats of residents. The commission also recognizes that the wetlands, which had been dumped on, literally, for years, have value. Also new was the perception of the Meadowlands as a potential economic engine for northern New Jersey, said Ms. Levin, a former state legislator and Cherry Hill mayor who is commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs.

"We have an asset in the Meadowlands that requires us to think big and see it as the gateway to the Northeast," Ms. Levin said.

She said the potential of the area went beyond the sports complex, with its Giants Stadium, Continental Arena, racetrack and a planned $1.3 billion retail and entertainment complex called Meadowlands Xanadu. Ms. Levin said that one of the area's benefits was its proximity the Newark port, a location that makes it easier to establish a foreign trade zone where imported goods could be stored and their parts assembled, all duty-free, before being moved on.

Economists, planners and elected officials who participated recently in the first Meadowlands Economic Summit heard studies by Rutgers University economists and planners, who cited the possibility of 137,000 new jobs, 3,800 new housing units and 8,400 acres of preserved wetlands under the revised master plan.

Michael Lahr, a researcher at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Public Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers, said the plan could increase employment by 70 percent and add $7.7 billion in new wages annually.

But there is still some friction. At Wednesday's commission meeting, the mayor of Secaucus strode angrily out of the room during the public comment portion when Mr. Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper, opposed a proposed fuel depot at the town's Wal-Mart.

Margaret Schack, a councilwoman and acting mayor of Rutherford in the 1970's, accused the commission of buying off resistance by the mayors of the surrounding municipalities with the new pool of grants.

But Mayor James Cassella of East Rutherford said that such attitudes were "old-school" and a newer generation of elected officials recognized the need for balancing development with environmental preservation while at the same time building their tax bases.

"I could spend time fighting them and going to court and making a name for myself," said Mr. Cassella, who has been mayor since 1996, "but it wouldn't solve anything. I try to explain to people in my town that if we don't do this with the commission, we will get left behind."

From The New York Times

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  • 1 year later...

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This is win-win and i hope Xanadu pulls through. Last i heard about this project, the planners are calling construction companies around the state looking for bidders to start the preliminary process of getting this project started. Ive always felt the Giants/Jets belong at the West Side in Manhattan (project is now dead) and the Devils/Nets play in Newark (pending/not sure of status). In addition to Great Adventure in Jackson, Ocean County, this gives state residents more choice whether to stay local or head down the Turnpike at 7A. This will also increase tourism revenue for the state to keep more state residents spending their dough in NJ, not to mention nearby NY, CT and PA bringing in additional revenue.

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The firm I work for is doing the transportation study for the Meadowlands entertainment district. I saw one of my co-workers drawing a 3D Giants Stadium in Sketch-Up to place into Google Earth and do 3D fly-throughs. It looked pretty hot.

I don't mind the Jets and Giants being in NJ. It's better for us New Jerseyans. And I'm also excited about Xanadu

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Anyone have information on the plan to bring rail to the Meadowlands stadium? From what I understand it's been promised for 30 years but hasn't been moving any closer to being built. I hear the buses are packed and the traffic's real bad getting out there.

Rail access to the Meadowlands is planned. There will be a short spur from the Main and Bergen lines connecting to the new Giants/Jets Stadium. Extensions to Xanadu and other Meadowlands attractions are being studied but not currently being taken seriously. I can try squeezing more info from co-workers who are working on the Meadowlands transportation study.

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Here 's a NYT article (used www.bugmenot.com to access) about the area saying what I have thought all along which is that it's really not moving forward. It's a shame because it sounds like it has a lot of potential but it's just sort of stagnating.

Oy. Secaucus. What a hot potato!

First there's the transit service

Secaucus Transfer is a good idea in principle. NJ TRANSIT said "gee, we have tons of rail lines leading to New York and Hoboken. What if we provided a way by which rail lines in Bergen County could connect to lines bound for New York so that they could take trains to the city instead of switching to ferries or PATH at Hoboken? What if people could switch lines without going into New York?

Great idea... but the transfer at Secaucus gives the advantage to bus services (some NJ TRANSIT, others are private carriers) that serve Bergen County and other northern suburbs. New York Express buses offer a ONE SEAT RIDE to Port Authority Bus Terminal. Rail requires a transfer. That eats time and builds frustration. It also opens the window wider for service disruptions and late trains that miss connections. Studies show that even if the one seat ride on a bus takes a few minutes longer it's still preferable because it's one easy step to get to New York.

Additionally, the planned ARC improvements will make the Bergen County and other northern lines MIDTOWN DIRECT trains, thereby making the Secaucus Transfer unnecessary (except for Jersey-to-Jersey trips which are not highly demanded).

Then there's the land development

So, if your $1B train station becomes obsolete due to service improvements, what do u do? You create demand! I've seen proposals to develop 50+ story buildings next to and even ON TOP OF the Secaucus station. Secaucus Borough (or is it a town?) applied for Transit Village status and got laughed out of the room because there's no village there! Granted, there are plans to develop one. But would you want to live or work in a transit village surrounded by the Meadowlands and the Turnpike?

Ugh. What to do with Secaucus.

I'm not quite as tough in my criticism as Dean Hughes is. He has mentioned Secaucus and the River LINE in several discussions over the past couple of years. The dean is very critical of recent transportation investments that don't pay off (especially given the trust fund situation). Though Secaucus may never become one of NJ's most densely developed areas as he prescribes to make the station "pay off" I think if SOME level of large-scale consistent and practical use comes to the station it will be an investment well made. I'm not one to say such investments aren't worth it. They're frustrating but it's been done. Now it's time to make the best we can out of it.

But, I do use the Secaucus Transfer to switch from the Northeast Corridor to the Morris & Essex trains about once every month. And despite the difficulty they've had in attracting users to the station, the bloody thing is so difficult to get around!!! Grrrr... I have lots of recommendations to make the Secaucus Transfer experience easier and more enjoyable. But who's asking me?

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