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This year, the Department of Housing and Urban Department or HUD, designated nearly a billion dollars of Sandy relief money as start-up cash for winning proposals in a competition. It was called Rebuild by Design, architecture and engineering firms proposed ways to protect against future disasters. Winners were chosen in the spring, now the challenge is acting on the plans. NPR's Franklyn Cater went to New Jersey to see how one of the ideas is coming along. It's called, the New Meadowlands.
FRANKLYN CATER, BYLINE: The Meadowlands is a vast, marshy landscape along the Hackensack River. You may know it as the home of the New York Jets and Giants, more than 8,000 acres of wetlands touching 14 different municipalities. We're floating pass them on a pontoon boat.
FRANCISCO ARTIGAS: So it's high tide right now. The salinity right here, this is brackish.
CATER: Francisco Artigas directs the Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute. Also on board, an architect, who wants to remake the Meadowlands. Alexander D'Hooghe of the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism.
ALEXANDER D'HOOGHE: Even with the impoverished ecosystem it's so beautiful here.
ARTIGAS: Oh, yeah,
D'HOOGHE: So amazing.
ARTIGAS: I can take you to places where you think you're in the Zambezi in Africa and you're just, you know, four miles from Manhattan.
CATER: We can see the skyline from here. The area is beautiful blooming cord-grass waves in the breeze. And its industrial, bordered by a sewage plant, warehouses and highways that crisscross the marsh.
D'HOOGHE: Just like this is an incredibly dynamic space from the water's point of view, water flowing in and out every day like a big breathing system. Same thing happens for a goods with trucks and logistics. Enormous massive movements, almost more than Manhattan, coming in and out here every day.
CATER: D'hooghe calls the meadowlands Manhattan's backstage, the gritty storage space for a glittering city. It's vitally important he says, economically as well as ecologically and when Sandy hit here water spilled into some of these communities like an overflowing toilet.
ARTIGAS: After rain events all the crap comes down.
ARTIGAS: Literally. And supermarket cards, mattresses, everything is floating down this river.
CATER: So the plan, pitch by MIT and a big team of Dutch designers with water management expertise, is to turn the Meadowlands in to a gigantic world-class park.
D'HOOGHE: The ambition of the plan is by building a big floodable landscape reserve, to make that into the central Park for the metro area.
CATER: The park would be surrounded by miles of berms to keep waters out of neighboring towns. Now thanks to the competition, Washington has pledged $150 million towards making that happen. And Alexander D'hooghe says the park and new flood protection should anchor a new band of development all around it. Design renderings show a practically glowing green space, ringed by new homes and businesses to take in the stunning views.
D'HOOGHE I'm naive and I'm optimistic, but none of this is revolutionary. It's all perfectly possible.
CATER: On shore at a restaurant near the river, supporters of the meadowlands project are discussing the way forward.
MAYOR MAURO RAGUSEO: Well, I'd like to that I'm, you know, cautiously optimistic.
CATER: Mauro Raguseo is mayor of Little Ferry, New Jersey, one of five communities slated to get a protective berm in the pilot project. He says to make this plan a reality and not just a multimillion dollar theoretical exercise, involves a lot of red tape.
RAGUSEO: A whole bunch of environmental restrictions, permitting process.
CATER: And choppy political waters - negotiations between municipalities, the state and federal governments, not to mention property owners.
RAGUSEO: They want to know is a berm going to be placed there? Is their property going to be bought? Is it going to be taken? (Laughter) You know, these are all questions - legitimate questions.
CATER: It's all a bit wonky, so stick with me. The money goes from HUD to the New Jersey Department of the Environment, but the state awaits paperwork from HUD to specify what's to be done. And there's this little detail, by law there must be a competitive bidding process for firms that do final design and construction. It's unclear if the originators of this idea, the winners of the contest get to guide its implementation.
RAGUSEO: How that is accomplished we'll have to see.
CATER: Down in the state capital, Dave Rosenblatt is in charge of engineering and construction for flood defense plans like this one. He says this is going to take years, a decade perhaps.
DAVE ROSENBLATT: These projects are going to happen. Right now the projects exist as concepts, but those concepts have to be taken by us and reworked so that they become viable at the price that HUD is willing to pay for them.
CATER: Remember Washington has pledged $150 million so far. That's just the kick start a pilot project. It would take billions to implement the whole plan. In Meadowlands towns I look for opinions. Few people know about the plan, but most people said something has to be done about the flood problem here. In Carlstadt, at a boat launch in the shadow of MetLife Stadium, boaters, Ron Saulsman (Ph) and Robert Klausa (Ph) tell me this.
RON SAULSMAN: If it helps the environment and helps the residents in the area and the economy, I think it's a good thing to spend the money.
ROBERT KLAUSA: I think they should do something with this place because it's just a waste of land.
CATER: It's beautiful.
KLAUSA: It's beautiful for the birds and stuff like that, but as far as industry, or people living and stuff it's - but that would be nice.
CATER: That public enjoyment of the water and urban economic development, along with critically needed flood protection is really what the rebuild by design competition is all about. And standing on the waterfront, looking at the marsh, the warehouses and the high-rises in the distance, you can get a feel for their vision. For the towns involved it'll take serious persistence to navigate a maze of politics and investment in the years ahead. Franklyn Cater on the Hackensack River for the NPR City's Project.
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