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Badlands NJBIZ at 25: Failed Projects

"For you know only a heap of broken images." – T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Has there ever been a wasteland quite like the Meadowlands, that swamp where good ideas go to die, where development goes to rot? To tell the full story of the disappointment that surrounds the Meadowlands — even if you exclude excessive pollution, raging underground fires and failed cleanups — you would need a trilogy worthy of Tolkien.

The granddaddy of them all has to be Xanadu, which instead of becoming the "stately pleasure-dome" evoked in a Coleridge poem has become a nightmare that has bested two developers and left a garish, multicolored scar looming over the Turnpike like a hungry dinosaur made of discarded shipping containers. Whether it ever gets rebranded and opened as American Dream depends on how skillfully developer Tripler Five manages to extort the state, which desperately wants to finish this megamall in a bid to lure tourists from New York and create more low-paying retail jobs to pad its employment numbers. For now, the idled building is slowly sinking into the tainted earth from which it sprang; in the meantime, it's been sued by the New York Giants and Jets, who don't want to share the coming traffic nightmare; it must contend with a challenge from local blue laws that prohibit Sunday shopping; it's facing fresh fisticuffs from the environmental community over plans to create a giant water park; and it's enjoyed an exodus of retailers who have become disenchanted in the decade this project has floundered. And yet, so much has been spent — about $2 billion so far, with plenty more low-interest financing promised from the state and another $1 billion supposedly coming from Triple Five — that it's hard to see this project not being completed.

Then, there's the EnCap project, the "Miracle in the Meadowlands" that was to introduce golf, residences, shops and a hotel on landfills. But it's more than $50 million in public money that got buried in the landfill, as the project bankrupted EnCap Golf Holdings and led to a legal nightmare as its financial backers took the developer to court. The only element you'd have thought missing from such a sizable failure would be Donald Trump; sure enough, he submitted a plan to resuscitate the project in 2007, but eventually scarpered without bringing any money to the table. Nothing was completed; the millions of tons of imported fill have since become contaminated and criminal investigations have been opened into the project.

Even the projects that have been finished are in dire straits. With Atlantic City and South Jersey blocking the Meadowlands Racetrack's bid to install video lottery terminals, the facility has been flattened by the racino in Yonkers, N.Y., and earlier this year, new operator and real estate magnate Jeff Gural said his sizable investments in the track won't amount to anything if other forms of gambling aren't permitted within. The idea of a casino in the Meadowlands has been a popular one, particularly as the locally hosted Super Bowl nears, but the casinos continue to stamp out efforts to expand gaming beyond Atlantic City's borders.

The kindest thing you can say about the Izod Center, meanwhile, is that it's still there despite the many compelling arguments for tearing it down and salting the earth it was built upon. The New Jersey Devils partnered with Newark to build an arena in the state's largest city, which opened in 2007, and lured the New Jersey Nets to town for a two-year stint before the team packed its belongings for Brooklyn, N.Y. Since then, unless you're a fan of Disney on Ice, you haven't had much reason to visit.

Then, there's Giants Stadium — one of the few successes in this region, but one that was prematurely torn down in 2010 to make way for the oversized, space-age toaster that is MetLife Stadium. "Great project, terrible public policy," one observer called it, noting that the state gave up revenue-generating Giants Stadium; money from tickets and food sales now goes to the teams. "New Jersey's taxpayers got fleeced and hosed by the agreement." The old building hosted World Cup soccer and a visit by Pope John Paul II; the new one is getting the Super Bowl and Wrestlemania, but as the most notable achievement was the Jets and Giants working together to tackle lawmakers to get their deal, it's hard to call that an upgrade. Related to this project's development is the abysmal rail service introduced to the sports complex site. Clearly intended as an item to be checked off the list to appease environmentalists, NJ Transit's stadium service opened with a catastrophic flop when it took U2 fans hours to board before the most-attended show in the stadium's history in 2009 — and even longer to get home. That first impression was a lasting one — the line sees minimal ridership from football fans, who want the experience of tailgating, not being crowded onto a station platform like sardines in a can.

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