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Possible Second Life for Stalled Xanadu Project? Consider Trip to ‘Jersey Shore’

Nadav Neuhaus for The New York Times

The long-delayed, multibillion-dollar Xanadu Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J.

Published: January 24, 2010

There’s a new governor, Christopher J. Christie, who took office on Tuesday, but otherwise the news from New Jersey last week had that familiar ring.

Guy Catrillo, a former Jersey City Council candidate who took $15,000 in bribes, received 18 months in prison in the first sentencing to grow out of the largest public corruption sting in state history. Leonard Kaiser, a longtime North Arlington mayor and a former freeholder and member of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion charges on Thursday in connection with campaign funds converted to personal use.

The reality show “Jersey Shore” finished a triumphant season of redefining contemporary courtship etiquette. (Thus saith “The Situation”: “I necessarily didn’t want to bring home any sort of zoo creatures whatsoever. These broads just smelled the food at the house.”)

And just when it seemed ready to recede into the New Jersey Turnpike permanent landscape, the Meadowlands Xanadu project resurfaced as the state’s other misbegotten reality show. First the chief executive of the sporting goods-outdoors megastore Cabela’s, the project’s anchor tenant and an indispensable attraction, said it was unlikely ever to open a store there. And on Friday, a report prepared by the Christie administration’s transition team said that Xanadu “appears to be a failed business model” and that New Jersey needs to tell the owners to “open or surrender the property.”

It concluded: “There is no leasing plan making material on-site progress. The physical activities of construction are at a standstill, if not abandonment. The construction loan is out of balance. There are no monies readily available to finish construction of public areas or tenant improvements. Most, if not all, of announced major tenants have an ‘escape clause’ solely dependent on leasing — or lack thereof.”

Officials with the project say its business model is sound and it has been delayed because two of its lenders went bankrupt.

Mr. Christie has been a critic of the stalled $2 billion project. But with a new administration, there will almost certainly be new attention to what can be done to forestall what could be perhaps the worst retail failure ever.

Well, O.K., everybody’s a critic now. It might have seemed peachy back in the McGreevey era to contemplate a multibillion-dollar shopping and entertainment center with a 16-story indoor Snow Park, 286-foot-tall Pepsi Globe Ferris wheel, a simulated sky-diving contraption, a MagiQuest virtual-reality game and the rest. But no one — at least no one not smoking however much opium it took for the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to envision the original Xanadu — would propose one now.

So what to do? The options are not attractive: hunker down and hope the project makes more sense in a year or two (or four or five), have the state sue the developers to take back the property, find a really rich new developer or knock it down and forget it. And there’s certain to be consideration of alternative uses. One already circulating on a hypothetical level (and certain to face gargantuan hurdles) is to consider allowing existing Atlantic City casino operators to make it a casino, in an effort to keep some North Jersey gambling dollars out of New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

Yes, there are already too many casinos, but there aren’t that many appropriate uses for something that looks like the world’s biggest air vent covered in Play Doh. Still, there must be other thoughts out there.

So, capitalizing on the state’s most conspicuous success over the past year, here’s mine — “Jersey Shore” Meadowlands: The Mall and Fitness Experience.

Turn the indoor ski slope into surfing waves, retrofit the place for housing that can be turned into share houses (year round!), put in a boardwalk to give the retail that “Jersey Shore” je ne sais quoi. The Situation, one of the show’s savants, has said he’d like to open his own fitness studio. Well, here it is: Make it the world’s biggest gym, tanning salon and academic research center into abs enhancement and state-of-the-art hair gel technology.

Is it a certain winner? Nothing is. But you take a white elephant that’s dead in the water and replace it with one perfectly aligned with the all-important youth demographic, with instant brand identification, an international audience of millions and potential for unlimited old-fashioned, interpersonal interactivity: Martial arts classes! Duck phone kiosks! Mass fist-pumping celebrations!

It’s true the “Jersey Shore” phenomenon could have a short half-life, but it beats Xanadu’s current no life. If you have a better idea of what to do with the site, please let me know.

Otherwise, we await bold new leadership. “We have the tools for a brighter future, if we change direction,” Mr. Christie said at his inauguration last week. Exactly. Sir, your new road to Xanadu starts here.

E-mail: peappl@nytimes.com

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