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New Jersey By Design: Five Visionary Projects for Rebuilding After Sandy

New Meadowlands: Productive City and Regional Park

Kobi Ruthenberg, a design associate with the Center for Advanced Urbanism at MIT, says the Meadlowlands presents both a challenge and a unique opportunity for residential and commercial growth.

His team -- a partnership of MIT CAU and the European design firms Zus and Urbanisten -- is seeking to create a new master plan for the area, which would include a regional park that could serve as the Meadowlands’ central focus and a new mixed-use housing and commercial developments.

“The Meadowlands is very low, it is historically marshland, and it floods regularly without storms, so that when storms hit it is extremely vulnerable,” said Ruthenberg, the project leader. This is of significant concern, he said, because the region is home to “vital networks,” such as mass-transit and utilities infrastructure that are “crucial for the region.”

“That is why there is a lot at stake in terms of utility and infrastructure companies,” he said.

In addition, the region is badly contaminated because of its history as an industrial hub. Storm surges and more general flooding exacerbate this, because they dredge up the pollutants and cause them to spread.

That is why any plan for the Meadlowlands has to do more than prevent floods. The MIT team is looking at the problems of the Meadowlands through four lenses: development and economic development, ecology and water issues, infrastructure and transportation, and energy and utilities.

“Through these lenses, we are trying to maximize the potential of the Meadowlands as an urban area,” he said. “Instead of people thinking of it as a backyard, as a bad place, we are trying to change that and have them look at this as an asset, as a regional park and as a place to live next to and use for recreational purposes.”

Central to this vision, he said, is an expanded park concept, which would tie existing recreational areas together and create new recreational opportunities, but requires the clean up of polluted properties. How this will take place, Ruthenberg said, is under discussion.

“We are hoping it can transform into a real park and be programmed with civic functions,” he said. “But to do that, we need to increase accessibility and reduce the pollution. That could include local, site-specific work that needs to be done on each polluted site, and the development of a regional idea of how pollution can be reduced through manipulation of water dynamics.”

At the moment, he said, there is minimal control of water flow, which means that existing businesses and residents remain threatened and lessens the potential for future development.

The team is looking at how water flows in the greater Meadowlands region -- which includes much of the eastern half of Bergen County and parts of Hudson County. One effort include looking at ways that different kinds of plants and other vegetation might absorb and redirect water and act as filters to remove pollutants, he said.

Cleaning the water and controlling its flow will allow for development of a larger park area and the potential for commercial and residential development along its boundaries. The specific outlines of the park have not been drawn and the locations for development have not yet been identified, he said.

“Industry will have and still has a large part” in the region’s future, he said. “The location and its proximity to Manhattan and to the New Jersey ports are crucial to the way goods move in the region.”

But residential development should also be a key component in a “more compact and more flexible” design that allows “residential and industrial uses to mix.” The goal is to create a more vibrant and economically diverse region that can sustain itself and afford the changes that will be necessary into the future.

“We are interested in productive landscapes and productive districts where you can imagine residential and light industry and warehousing in the same area,” he said.

The Hoboken Plan

The goal for Hoboken is resilience, according to a design team looking to protect Hoboken from future flooding. With sea levels rising, the two-square-mile city is expected to remain susceptible to flooding, which is why a team of designers and engineers led by Netherlands-based OMA is crafting a multipart master plan to help protect the city’s 50,000 residents and important regional facilities, using proven Dutch techniques.

The OMA team, which also includes Royal HaskoningDHV, Balmori Associates, and HR&A Advisors, chose Hoboken because it presented an intersection of important factors, said Daniel Pittman, lead designer for OMA on the project: It is prone to flooding, is densely populated, is loaded with regional assets like hospitals, schools and transit hubs, and also offers redevelopment potential.

“Our proposal looks at Hoboken as a whole city,” Pittman said, “and asks ‘what is the approach you can take to provide resilience on a city-wide scale.’”

Much of Hoboken was under water during and immediately after superstorm Sandy. That is because of the city’s geography, Pittman said. Hoboken was an island surrounded by marshland into the 1800s, when much of it was filled and eventually paved over and the city, a third of which is water, sits at sea level.

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