When second grade teacher Scott Dennis visited his brother who worked at the Laurel Hill Paddling Center in Secaucus a year ago, a seed was be planted that would result in his filming a documentary about the Meadowlands District soon after.
“You can get completely lost [in the wetlands] kayaking like you were down in Louisiana,” Dennis said. “I was so impressed with the whole area, whether it was water quality or visual beauty. Seeing the Empire State Building in the distance really struck me, how close NYC is.”
Dennis recently completed “Building a Meadowlands,” a 50-minute look at the Hackensack River and the fight to save open wetlands and redirect developers to a more ecologically responsible spot. The film looks at the recent battle between the Mills development corporation and local environmentalists over whether Mills could put a mall on the 600-acre Empire Tract in Carlstadt. Ultimately, all parties negotiated, and the project, now known as Meadowlands Xanadu, will be built at the sports arena in East Rutherford. Dennis purchased the equipment to make the film himself, took all the footage, edited it, and distributed it to libraries and other educational facilities.
Different interest groups come together
Dennis, who grew up in Garfield, N.J., lives in Brooklyn and teaches special education at P.S. 78 in Queens. He decided in the fall of 2004 that the Hackensack River had an important story.
The film covers the river’s history from prehistoric until recent times, when there was a highly publicized fight between conservationists and developers over the Empire Tract.
In 1996, the Virginia-based Mills Corporation wanted to build a mall on the tract, and the Hackensack Riverkeeper and others who wanted to preserve it. The proposed retail development called for filling in of 206 acres of wetlands.
“There were fierce battles in the beginning, but with time, everyone came to see that it was in the state’s best interest to preserve the Empire Tract and to think in terms of ecotourism about the river,” said Captain Bill Sheehan, a Secaucus resident who heads the local branch of the Hackensack Riverkeeper environmental group. “Now everyone is pretty much on the same page.”
Dennis utilizes an engaging mix of voiceovers, interviews, quotes from famous writers, scenes of natural beauty, and archived footage from the bad old days, when northern New Jersey was a nightmare of solid waste after years of unregulated dumping.
He is also a musician and provides the lilting background music for the video on piano and guitar. What is unique about “Building the Meadowlands” is its objective and unbiased approach that has a clear message – that positive change can result when parties from opposite sides of the table can work things out when they find a common ground.
That common ground was maintaining the ecological character of the Meadowlands while making it economically viable.
“The whole fight resulted in a case study of conflict resolution and changed the way we all do business with each other,” said Sheehan. “Now all the players come to the table to work things out to include the best interests of New Jersey residents.”
The destination spot with everything
After 10 years of debates, the Virginia-based Mills Corporation project was redirected to the New Jersey Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford. The 104-acre, $1.4 billion recreation/retail development extravaganza is now known as the Meadowlands Xanadu project.
And in March, the developers of Xanadu, which now includes Mack-Cali, a Cranford realty investment firm, signed a contract to transfer the Empire Tract to Sheehan and Meadowlands Conservation Trust Executive Director Tina Schvejda.
The tract was renamed the Richard P. Kane Natural Area, after a NJ Audubon Society naturalist who saw the value of the tract in the 1970s, and is held in perpetuity for the people of New Jersey.
The battle included many significant stakeholders such as the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers, the NJ Sports and Entertainment Authority, the Hackensack RiverKeeper, the Sierra Club, the NY/NJ Bay Keeper, the Meadowlands Chamber of Commerce, as well as many towns and local politicians. Many of the key figures in the controversy discuss their take on the situation, including Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell.
The video can be found at many area libraries and is available for educational institutions. You also can get a copy by emailing producer/director/author Scott Dennis at email@example.com.