Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Ground Breaking Close as American Dream Awaits Permits

Money may be the only thing standing in the way of the long-awaited American Dream Meadowlands project, the $3.7 billion shopping and entertainment complex adjacent to the Izod center. Developers are reported to be close to a federal signoff on their plans to add water and amusement parks at the site of the redevelopment once known as Xanadu.

Governor Christie speaking last May at a news event touting the new plan to develop American Dream Meadowlands, on the site that once was to have been the Xanadu entertainment complex. Governor Christie speaking last May at a news event touting the new plan to develop American Dream Meadowlands, on the site that once was to have been the Xanadu entertainment complex.

In December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrote that it would “continue to object” to the proposed expansion until a formal wetlands- mitigation plan is submitted and approved.

A spokesman for Triple Five, the operators of Mall of America in Minnesota and would-be operators of American Dream, said Friday that the company had “within the last 24 to 48 hours” responded to environmental questions as part of a 196-page submission to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps — which later Friday confirmed receipt of the information — has authority over permits involving development that intrudes on U.S. waterways.

Meanwhile, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority — the landlord for the project — has yet to submit an environmental impact statement that was due in February. That delay means that an advisory report on the proposal from the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Meadowlands Commission won’t meet an today’s deadline.

The delays likely will push resumption of construction on the project, in the Meadowlands Sports Complex, beyond the spring time frame that the developers set out late last year.

“It’s frustrating for a lot of people, especially those looking for work, and we share that frustration,” Marcus said. But he added that the timetable of opening most of the original retail and entertainment sections of the project in time for the Feb. 2, 2014, Super Bowl at the Meadowlands remains unchanged.

The lag in closing the deal echoes earlier struggles that have turned the project into the butt of jokes — and stoked skepticism by North Jersey residents who regularly drive past the much-derided multicolored fa├žade near the New Jersey Turnpike. Earlier incarnations of the stalled project were derailed by delays and economic setbacks over the past decade.

So 11 months after an elaborate press conference at the site featuring Governor Christie and an extensive press tour of the interior, Triple Five has yet to take over the site from a group of the project’s major lenders. A new round of financing — totaling $1.7 billion and, for the first time, involving public sources — also has not been finalized.

Christie predicted recently that American Dream would follow in the footsteps of the Revel casino in Atlantic City, another long-stalled multibillion-dollar project that finally opened for business last week.

“I think you’ll see the same kind of progress up north regarding the American Dream project,” he said. “We’re in the final throes of negotiations there.”

Stalled by water park

At issue on the environmental side is Triple Five’s plan for an indoor water and amusement park complex on a 22-acre tract that sits between the New Jersey Turnpike and the existing multicolored project.

Last fall, a subsidiary of Triple Fall applied to the Army Corps of Engineers for the permissions needed to build on 5-plus acres of wetlands that are part of that site.

In her Dec. 21, 2011, letter to the corps, Judith Enck, regional administrator for the EPA, asked whether the new attractions could be placed elsewhere on the site, whether a less intrusive plan could be devised to lessen impact on the wetlands and whether further road improvements might be required near the attractions.

Marcus described such qualms by the EPA as “practically boilerplate” in response to preliminary proposals that have not yet offered detailed mitigation plans.

Chris Mallery, a regulatory officer for the corps, said that American Dream has several options, including buying credits at wetlands mitigation banks — offsite locations where work is being done to restore wetlands. That would result in the preservation of other environmentally sensitive areas in the region to offset the disturbance of wetlands at the American Dream site.

Mallery said that representatives of American Dream have been consulting with the agency over the last several months. But, he noted, because the paperwork had just been submitted, the agency had not yet done a thorough review of the company’s application.

Wetlands projects such as at American Dream also need a go-ahead from other federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Jeff Tittel, the executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club and a longtime critic of the Meadowlands project, said that while he originally expected the American Dream permitting process to be concluded by last month, he isn’t too surprised by the delays. “These things are never as easy as developers think they are on paper,” Tittel said.

The original developer of Xanadu, the Mills Corp., ran into financial trouble in 2005.

Colony Capital took over in late 2006, but work on the project again ground to a halt in March 2009 when promised project financing dried up. A group of lenders for the project took control of the site that summer, but little progress has been made since then.