WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Supporters of the American Dream Meadowlands project – formerly known as Xanadu – will plead their case this week for the filling of five acres of wetlands to permit the expansion of the stalled project’s footprint to more than three million square feet.
Triple 5 Company, the developers behind Mall of America, said it would use the extra acres to build more than a half-million square feet of family attractions like a water park and an enclosed amusement park – and that approval for the additional land by the Army Corp of Engineers is crucial for the project.
“It is the critical piece,” said Alan Marcus, project spokesman. “The reason that the former owners failed is this is what is lacking."
Plans call for the amusement park to encased in a glass dome with signature views of the New York City skyline, a water park with six-foot waves, a 16-story indoor ski slope and a 26-screen movie theater. The project is scheduled to be in place before the 2014 Super Bowl, which is being hosted in the Meadowlands.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the Army Corps should deny the permit because it would exacerbate Bergen County’s existing flooding problems.
"If you start filling in wetlands in the Meadowlands, the water doesn't have a place to go and it backs up the rivers causing localized flooding," Tittel said.
Dave Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation, called the project "an economic and environmental boondoggle."
The Christie Administration and the Democrat-controlled legislature have both endorsed providing the developer $300 million in public financing for the project that boosters claim will draw more than 50 million visitors annually.
Jim Kirkos, CEO of the Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he is recently back from surveying the communities around Triple 5's Mall of America in Minnesota and West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada. Kirkos said he learned Triple 5's mega projects actually improved the business climate across the board.
"I talked with Chamber leaders in and around Bloomington and in and around Edmonton, tourism executives, business people, public officials," Kirkos said, “Every single one told me the positive impact far outweighed any negative impact."
Tittel disagreed, and said existing retailers will also take a hit if Triple 5's American Dream is realized.
"All that mall will do is kill shopping centers in Jersey City, Paramus and Elizabeth and not really add to commerce," Tittel said. "We’re already over-built commercially, and the shopping mall is about a relevant as a '57 Edsel."
The original Xanadu project was conceived as a public private partnership back during the Governor Jim McGreevey era as a way to re-energize the state's Meadowlands Sports Complex originally planned in the 1960s.
It was anticipated that a major retail and entertainment complex in the mix of the existing race track, IZOD Center and football stadium would help retain sports teams like the Nets and Devils.
Xanadu's two-million-square-foot shell, built on state land, was completed in 2007, but was never opened after two separate developers failed to bring the project on line.
The Port Authority and New Jersey Transit spent $200 million to build a two-plus mile train line to the site, which is now only used for special events and the Meadowlands Sports Complex.
The public will have an opportunity to weigh in at hearings schedule for Tuesday, November 15, and Wednesday, November 16 at the Pegasus-Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Morning sessions will run from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and evening sessions from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. both days.