What’s at Stake for the American Dream

For the past 14 years, the development of one of the country’s largest and most expensive shopping and entertainment centers in the New Jersey Meadowlands has advanced in fits and starts. But recent approval by state regulators of the project’s financing makes it increasingly likely that the American Dream Meadowlands will move forward.

The proposed four million square foot shopping and entertainment megaproject, whose cost has been estimated at more than $4 billion, includes the nation’s largest indoor amusement park, 2.9 million square feet of retail space, a 12-story ski and snowboard park, a 3,000 seat concert hall and 30,000 parking spaces. As a revamped financial deal looks likely to breathe new life into the project, it is important to ask some questions before raising the cranes again.

While some have raised questions about the project’s financing, perhaps the most critical questions revolve around future sea level rise. When we imagine the proposed shopping and entertainment center, we likely picture the region around it much as it is today: a patchwork of buildings, landfills, infrastructure and wetlands that comprise the New Jersey Meadowlands. But if forecasts are correct, as little as one foot of sea level rise over the next couple of decades could begin to inundate large portions of the Meadowlands. As shown in our map below, three feet of sea level rise – a possibility over the next 50+ years – would engulf more than half of the area, and six feet would leave only small portions of dry land in a couple of communities on higher ground.


Unlike flooding from rainfall or storm surge, sea level rise flooding is permanent. It doesn’t recede or dry up. Barring significant investments in engineered solutions, the entire Meadowlands region of the future could become a shallow waterbody with a few islands of dry land rising above the water line, reminiscent of its origins as a glacial lake.

The project’s developers and New Jersey regulators should take into account permanent flooding from sea level rise in the Meadowlands as they plan and build this project and others, just as has been done with projects that address the periodic flooding from stormwater and surge during major events such as Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy.

Funding for American Dream Meadowlands involves close to $2 billion in public subsidies. Such a significant public outlay will make it hard to avoid protecting the site and adapting the infrastructure that connects to it.

We don’t yet know how individual communities in the Meadowlands will respond to sea level rise, but it is a near certainty that they will require public funds to adapt or, in the longer term, retreat from the most threatened places. Will competition for scarce funding mean that New Jersey will have to decide between investing in communities or in this megaproject? These questions should be addressed before finalizing plans and restarting construction on the project.


Photo credit: Brad Miller / Creative Commons

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