Mall plan forces a look at future of Meadowlands Developers argue that parts of N.J. wetland are not worth saving


CARLSTADT, N.J. - For generations, travelers have usually rushed past the Meadowlands, barely acknowledging its long, flat marshes, the acres and acres of tall, brown reeds bowing low in the wind, the murky waters and, more recently, the unnatural peaks of former garbage dumps, the squat warehouses and vapid office parks.

It is here, in these forgotten badlands, where for decades only dump trucks, mobsters and the most determined muskrat trappers dared to go, that Mills Corp. of Arlington, Va., plans to spend $1 billion to build the state's largest mall, Meadowlands Mills. It is to be a 2.1 million-square-foot compound of brand-name outlet stores and flashy entertainment venues accompanied by office towers and a 1,000-room hotel.

By any measure, it is a bold proposal, particularly in a state some already regard as the shopping-mall capital of the Northeast. And because the mall would be in Bergen County, which has a blue-law ban, it could not open on Sundays. Undeterred, Mills, one of the most ambitious builders of megamalls in the world, is determined to push ahead with what would be its biggest project ever.

The location - at the heart of the largest retail market in the country, just nine miles from midtown New York - could not be more perfect for Mills. The company, a publicly traded real estate investment trust, has generated billions in sales by taking outlet shopping from out-of-the-way places to the shadows of major cities across the United States, including Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas and Phoenix.

View of environmentalists

But some environmentalists see the meadows as the last great unprotected wilderness area in the New York region. Building the mall would require filling 206 acres of polluted but still federally protected wetlands, a move the environmentalists utterly oppose.

The fight over Meadowlands Mills is just one aspect of a larger, decade-long battle over the destiny of the Meadowlands as a whole. The Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, the state agency with zoning authority in the area, has proposed a "special area management plan" that, in essence, concedes that some development in the Meadowlands inevitable.

But the plan would limit the number of acres of wetlands that could be filled and developed and would require developers to pay for more than $800 million in environmental repairs.

For its part, Mills Corp. says it would restore 380 acres of wetlands, more than any other developer under the commission's plan. "I think it's a wonderful opportunity," said Edward Vinson, the company's vice president for development: "To develop one-third and mitigate the balance and return the property to a true wetlands, functioning fresh water and brackish water wetlands, which has not existed on this site in 80 years."

Local environmental groups, however, say sacrificing some wetlands to save others violates federal environmental policy, which since the Bush administration has mandated no net loss of wetlands. Until now, builders who get permits to fill wetlands have generally been required to create an equivalent amount of wetlands elsewhere.

"One of our biggest fears here is that this would set a national precedent that would essentially put public trust wetlands up for sale to finance other schemes," said Andrew Willner, director of New York-New Jersey Baykeeper, an environmental group, and one of the most vocal opponents of development in the Meadowlands. "We don't think the case law nor the moral code allows for that."

The standoff in the Meadowlands is unlike traditional feuds between developers and environmentalists. It is not over a tract of pristine natural territory but rather over a swath of some of the most highly polluted land in the country, a nasty mix of closed landfills, toxic-waste sites and waterways fouled by garbage.

Developers argue that parts of the Meadowlands are so degraded they are not worth saving. But environmentalists note that the water quality in the Meadowlands has improved markedly since the garbage dumps were closed. Since 1970, the Meadowlands' low point, the number of bird species has risen to more than 260 from fewer than 200, they say.

The wrangling continues as President Clinton has made wetlands preservation his top environmental priority. In February, Clinton announced a five-year, $2.3 billion plan to combat water pollution, with a goal of restoring 100,000 acres of wetlands a year by 2005.

In recent weeks, national environmental groups have joined local organizations in sending letters to the White House urging protection of the Meadowlands. Mills Corp. has already enlisted several heavyweight lobbyists in Trenton and in Washington, including Ann Richards, the former governor of Texas.

Since last summer, the President's Council on Environmental Quality has been involved in trying to broker an agreement on the future of the Meadowlands. Officials said last week that they hoped to reach a deal within a month.

"This 10-year impasse over the environmental and economic issues not only diminishes confidence in the regulatory system but also threatens the wetlands themselves," said Bradley Campbell, associate director of the White House council, "because we lack any comprehensive constraints on wetlands fill in the district."

Value of wetlands

Wetlands are considered ecologically valuable because they shelter wildlife, act as a water filtration system and provide flood protection. Even the damaged Meadowlands plays these roles to varying degrees.

Under the Meadowlands Commission's plan, about 8,500 acres of remaining wetlands would be restored. The plan would also compensate private landowners who would not be allowed to develop. The commission says it fears that a ban on all construction, which the environmentalists would prefer, would result in lawsuits by private landowners.

Commission officials said they saw little alternative but to allow some development.

"These are probably the most assaulted wetlands in an urban area anywhere in the world," said Anthony Scardino Jr., executive director of the commission. "How do you go about the process of cleaning it up? Where do you get the resources, the financial resources?"

Final approval of the plan requires the cooperation of many government agencies, including the commission, the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Officials have been trying to decide how few acres could be filled and still allow enough development for the plan to make economic sense. The plan would also streamline the state and federal reviews of developers' proposals.

Started as glacial lake

The Meadowlands started as a vast glacial lake inhabited by mastodons. The lake began receding in 8000 B.C. Thousands of years ago, refuse left by people in the Meadowlands amounted to piles of oyster shells. Native tribes fished and hunted here. In the 1700s, Dutch and British colonists farmed salt hay and chopped cedar trees. More recently, industrialists built factories and heaped trash. Murderous mobsters dumped corpses.

By 1970 it had become one of the largest, most toxic dumping grounds in the world. Starting in 1974, the state built a huge sports complex with a football stadium, a horse-racing track and an indoor basketball and hockey arena. From 1977 to 1997, the Army Corps of Engineers granted 34 permits for filling and developing wetlands in the region. The entire Meadowlands district, including the 750-acre sports complex, encompasses 32 square miles, making it larger than Manhattan in New York City.

The Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission was created by state legislators in 1969 when the dumping situation seemed to be at its all-time worst. The goal was to create a single state agency and centralize authority over zoning and other planning matters for the whole Meadowlands, which stretches across parts of 14 municipalities in Bergen and Hudson counties.

Legislators gave the commission three contradictory missions: to protect nature, to provide for orderly development and to provide space for the disposal of solid waste.

Pub Date: 4/14/98

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