Master plan expected to give new life to Meadowlands

8,400 acres slated to become largest urban park in New York region

March 11, 2004|By Maria Newman | Maria Newman,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LYNDHURST, N.J. -- The New Jersey Meadowlands Commission approved on Thursday a master plan to transform 8,400 acres once known as the state's signature trash heap into an ecological preserve and the largest urban park in the region.

The plan, several years in the making, received high praise from local and state officials and from environmentalists, who said it would preserve the sensitive Meadowlands and benefit the local economy. The 32-acre preserve, 10 times the size of Central Park, was once home to toxic landfills that contributed to the state's reputation as a waste dump.

Susan Bass Levin, who was appointed chairwoman of the commission by Gov. James E. McGreevey, recalled that when she was growing up in nearby Saddlebrook, "we closed our windows when the winds would blow from the east."

"For too long, it was known as a smelly dumping ground, not the national treasure that it is today," Levin said.

The plan calls for a balance between economic development and environmental preservation in a broad swath of land that includes parts of 14 cities in Bergen and Hudson counties, two miles from the Lincoln Tunnel, which links New Jersey with midtown Manhattan. The area includes a busy hub of warehouses and sports and entertainment sites along Route 3 and the New Jersey Turnpike, and acres of delicate marshland grasses that grow taller than a man's head, which were disappearing until a few years ago.

"The war over the Meadowlands is over," said Capt. Bill Sheehan, the executive director of Hackensack Riverkeeper, an environmental group, who was credited by many at Thursday's meeting with being a leader of the efforts to preserve the area. "We are now policing the place."

The approval of the plan is the culmination of years of planning and cooperation among scores of federal, state and local agencies and varying economic and environmental interests. The effort began in 1969 when the state first called for a master plan.

"It took a whole change in mind-set, a change in the culture of this organization," said Robert R. Ceberio, an environmentalist, who was named executive director of the commission by McGreevey two years ago. It was under Levin's leadership, Ceberio said, that the different constituents vying for a piece of the Meadowlands came together and agreed to abide by one planning document.

The commission now owns or controls 3,600 acres of the parcel, and plans to acquire more, which will be put into a trust. The master plan calls for preserving much of the land and revitalizing those areas that were blighted by pollution or overdevelopment.

The plan's zoning regulations, which will govern planning for the next 25 years, will allow 24 million square feet of commercial space and 2,750 hotel rooms. When added to other redevelopment initiatives already under way, officials said, the regulations will help add $73.1 million and 56,000 jobs to the area's economy.

One of the projects already in the planning stages is the $1.4 billion Meadlowlands Xanadu sports and entertainment complex, to be built on the current site of the Continental Airlines Arena. That project was approved recently by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority.

The plan received some criticism because officials have yet to work out details on the transportation aspect to make sure the ecological preserve is not disturbed by the burdens of future traffic needs. Levin said it could be several months before a transportation plan is adopted, after public hearings are held.

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