Meadowlands and Sports Complex: Looking Back and Ahead (video and transcript)
The Meadowlands: A Brief History
Prepared by Donald J. Linky for the Center on the American Governor
- Actions Under Governors Richard Hughes and William Cahill (1962-1974)
- Actions under Governor Brendan Byrne (1974-1982)
The New Jersey Meadowlands District is composed of 19,730 acres, approximately 31 mi², of 14 municipalities in Bergen and Hudson counties. The Meadowlands District stretches mainly along the terminus of the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers as they flow into Newark Bay. The area is bordered on multiple sides by highways and commuter and freight railways.
For three centuries, wetlands in general, and the Newark and Hackensack meadows in particular, were unanimously regarded as “wastelands.” They were viewed as unpleasant, unhealthy, unproductive places that ought to be “improved” out of existence as rapidly as possible. A journalist describing the Meadowlands in 1867 began his article with this description: “Swamp-lands are blurs upon the fair face of Nature; they are fever-breeding places; scourges of humanity; which, instead of yielding the fruits of the earth and adding wealth to the general community, only supply the neighboring places poisonous exhalations and torturing mosquitoes. They are, for all practical purposes, worthless; and the imperative necessity for their reclamation is obvious to all, and is universally conceded.” Indeed, as late as 1969 wetlands naturalists such John and Mildred Teal still described marshes as generally useless land that must be made useful as quickly as possible. By useful they meant destruction of the marshes in most cases and conversion of the area to ground on which people can stand, and water on which they can float boats.
Prior to the establishment of the NJMC (New Jersey Meadowlands Commission), the Meadowlands region was popularly viewed as a dumping ground, and the Hackensack River and its marshes were often seen as places to fill for commercial and industrial development.
The situation in the Meadowlands began to change in the 1950’s when large-scale proposals to develop the remaining unpolluted Meadowlands arose after the construction of the New Jersey Turnpike along its eastern edge. Placement of a turnpike interchange at Route 3 in Secaucus began the transformation of a small village known primarily for its pig farms into a substantial city known for shopping malls and factory outlets. The Meadowlands Regional Development Agency was created by the state legislature in the late 1950s to facilitate Meadowlands development, but it was mainly a fact-finding body and had little impact.
Governors Richard J. Hughes and William T. Cahill (1962-1974)
Further incentive for developing the remaining portions of the Meadowlands came during the late 1960s, when the New Jersey Turnpike Authority decided to widen the existing turnpike and construct a western spur through the very center of the wetlands to connect with Route 3 in East Rutherford, near the Hackensack River. The administration of Governor Richard Hughes predicted that this interchange would become the center of a major new city on the reclaimed wetlands, with housing, industry, commercial centers, and recreation facilities rivaling those of Manhattan. Governor Hughes persuaded the legislature to enact the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Act in 1968, to facilitate the development of the remaining Meadowlands. The act created the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, now the NJ Meadowlands Commission, which had a mandate to promote economic development. It was because of these economic incentives that the State, under Governor Hughes, first began to move against illegal dumping in the area.
The focus on development of the Meadowlands continued on into the administration of Governor Cahill. During the 1960’s there arose growing demands from civic leaders to develop a sports complex in the still largely undeveloped area of the Meadowlands with the goal of securing an NFL team from New York City. The district was close to major avenues of highway and railway transportation, and had other advantages suited to arena development. Governor Cahill agreed with these sentiments and in 1971, the State Legislature enacted the Governor’s idea to establish the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA) to build and operate the Meadowlands Sports Complex, including Giants Stadium and the Meadowlands Racetrack. The IZOD CENTER, then known as the Meadowlands Arena, was added to the plan soon after. Following the passage of the act Cahill was instrumental in persuading the New York Giants to leave Yankee Stadium and play football in a stadium to be built in the Hackensack Meadowlands. By the end of 1971 the Governors’ appointee to be the first Chairman of the NJSEA, David A. Werblin, was able to conclude a contract deal with the Giants, and on November 19, 1972 ground was broken on Giants Stadium.
During that same time period of the late 60’s and early 70’s there was a change in public attitudes towards the value of the wetlands, primarily due to the extra publicity that the area was receiving because of the development initiatives. Additionally, the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act gave the Army Corps of Engineers a federal mandate to protect, maintain, and restore wetlands. This increased concern for the environmental preservation of the Meadowlands district would continue into the Byrne administration.
Governor Brendan T. Byrne (1974-1982)
During his 1973 election campaign Brendan Byrne supported stricter state environmental laws. In addition to moving to preserve the Pinelands in southern New Jersey, he also appointed more environmentally concerned commissioners to the HMDC, and slowed and then halted most efforts to develop the remaining Hackensack Meadowlands outside of what was proscribed 1971 NJSEA act. One notable exception to this was the construction in 1981 of the Brendan Byrne (now Continental Airlines) Arena across from Giants Stadium.
The Byrne administration remained actively seized throughout the 1970’s and early 80’s on how to better utilize the Meadowlands Sports Complex. Starting in late 1974, the Byrne administration began to inquire about the possibility of hosting the Football Hall of Fame at the Sports Authority site. The first roadblock came in when James Zazzali, General Counsel to the NJSEA, sent a memo to Governor Byrne and Counselor Kaden, indicating that the Authority did not have $5 million in funds necessary to support the project. Additionally, he informed the Governor that although the Football Hall of Fame wished to be in the New York Metropolitan Area, they had received attractive offers from cities in Tennessee and Ohio. Following this memo, on February 28, 1975 NJSEA Chairman Sonny Werblin had Jack Krumpe meet with Vincent Draddy of the Hall of Fame in New York. Krumpe indicated to Draddy that New Jersey could provide space in the Stadium, or adjacent land, but was only capable of providing money for the Hall’s construction a few years “down the line.”
Another major concern during the Byrne administration was developing better transportation for the Meadowlands Complex prior to the opening of Giants Stadium in fall of 1976. During a meeting on June 26, 1975 between Assistant Counsel John Degnan and representatives from the NJSEA, the HMDC, and NJDOT; it became clear to the administration that no work was being done on the implementation of mass emergency transportation system which would be operative by the time of the stadium’s opening. Beyond that all three of the entities at meeting complained of either a lack of man power, resources, or mandate to implement either a long or short term mass transit plan. Following this meeting several recommendations were agreed upon by all the parties and forwarded onto the Governor.
Progress in the implementation of mass transit services soon began to occur, and on July 7th members of NJSEA meet with William Henry of Transportation of New Jersey (TNJ) and received a guarantee that Sports Complex would become a regular commuter stop between Route 3 and Patterson Plank Road. Following this on July 31, 1975 Governor Byrne met with Werblin, Foley, and several other members of the Sports Authority, and the NJSEA acknowledged that they were responsible for the development of mass transportation plans for the complex. They requested assistance from the NJ Department of Transportation and a task force was established with Martin Holleran of the Sports Authority as its head. Unfortunately, as the NJSEA tried to implement the recommendations of the task force budgetary problems, primarily from the failure of the 1975 Transportation Bond Issue, persisted into 1976. Fortunately, however, the complex was able to open to the general public on schedule on October 10, 1976. The opening of the Sports Complex was a major event, and at a preview opening of the Meadowlands Race Track on July 11, 1976, then Democratic Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter was invited.