conservation, sustainable land use

NJ’s land use schizophrenia


It’s no secret that the people from New Jersey have conflicting impulses when it comes to rural land in their Garden State.  The conflict can be seen as you travel down the Garden State Parkway — the real Jersey Shore (not the reality TV version) on one side and the Pinelands Preservation Zone on the other.  The clash is particularly abrupt on the drive from the Delaware Bayshore at Jake’s Landing to Wildwood on the Atlantic ocean.  We distinguish ourselves by creating the most jarring contrasts of the most garish architecture and the most preserved spaces.   Gentle transitions are not enough.

The new mall, Xanadu, being built in the NJ Meadowlands is emblematic of the clash between people who want development to blend into its environment and those who wish to overcome it with neon, stainless steel and loud colors.  Xanadu is a boondoggle that has consumed hundreds of millions of dollars (including public funds) but remains abandoned and unfinished, investors coming and going, the project starving for funds.   But Xanadu is also a testament to the lost battle waged to build a space that would provide users the chance to shop while still enjoying one of the most improbable wild places in the mid-Atlantic coast nestled in one of the busiest places in the world.   Xandu is the success of those who see wildness only as an opportunity for quick profits from destroying a beautiful natural place and turning it into a gaudy playground.

Just read the reviews of architects of the region who describe Xanadu for an article in the NY Times.  The article describes the debacle that has led to millions of lost dollars for a building nobody wants.   One review, however, brilliantly describes not just the problem of the place but of our self-destructive attitude toward rural New Jersey.

The author, Brian McGrath, is the founder and principal of Urban-Interface L.L.C., an urban design consulting practice.   He was part of an effort to create designs for the Meadowlands Commission property that ultimately became Xanadu.  Unfortunately for the citizens of New Jersey, Mr. McGrath didn’t get the job.

“It’s the ultimate example of the shopping mall as an enclosed space that doesn’t engage the environment around it.  New Jersey is famous for those.  It’s less about the ugliness and the scale and the ambition, and more about how you engage a wetland. An indoor ski slope (a proposed feature of the mall)  that requires refrigeration year-round blatantly disregards the environment.”

Xanadu’s design “could in some ways make reference to its environment, to the wetlands, the wildlife,” but it does not. “These open areas — the Meadowlands, Jamaica Bay — are the blue and green lungs of our region, and they’ve been completely disregarded and dumped on. They’re just places to drive past and fly over when we’re landing at the airport.  It’s definitely in the spirit of Las Vegas, and the love of the ugly and the ordinary in the American landscape.”