Gore in the Balance

For years infamous as the world's biggest garbage dump (and quite possibly the final resting place of Jimmy Hoffa), New Jersey's Meadowlands is once again home to burgeoning populations of wildlife. Eco-tourists now flock to this 32-square-mile tidal and freshwater estuary, located just five miles west of New York City. But the fate of the Meadowlands still hangs in the balance.

Last spring the Clinton White House tentatively endorsed a draft state-federal plan that would permit the construction of a shopping mall on 90 acres of wetlands in the heart of the Meadowlands. If that policy stands--and sometime this spring five federal agencies, one state agency, and one local agency will jointly issue a plan that will determine its future--a stretch of marshy swamp that is now home to flounder, striped bass, harrier hawks, and blue herons, will soon be paved over to make way for a few oversized buildings and a great number of parked cars.

Opponents of the proposed mall claim it would not only decimate a recovering wildlife refuge but also mar the region's human landscape by creating traffic jams and urban sprawl. One of the most prominent of these opponents, environmental litigator Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who is also one of Al Gore's environmental advisers, says the mall would be nothing less than a "national disaster."

The mall's developer, the Mills Corporation of Arlington, Virginia, not surprisingly, sees the matter rather differently. To Mills CEO Laurence C. Siegel--who happens to be a major contributor to Gore's campaign--Meadowlands Mills will be a shopping and entertainment complex that will employ thousands and enthrall millions.

But the failure to think strategically about transportation and urban sprawl has been a hallmark of many recent Mills Corporation projects. At the opening of Ontario Mills in southern California in 1996, for example, cars were backed up on Interstate 10 for miles, and traffic jams and air pollution have persisted in the area ever since. The entrance to Gurnee Mills north of Chicago was the single most accident-prone intersection in the entire state of Illinois in 1997 and the fourth most accident-prone in 1998, according to the state's Transportation Department. Arizona Mills in Tempe opened in 1998 with fisticuffs in the overcrowded parking lots and promptly became a legendary traffic bottleneck.

The mall project could have been built in Newark, where the downtown area, well served by public transportation, is now enjoying a revival based on a Portuguese restaurant district and an attractive old-style baseball stadium. Instead, the Mills Corporation selected the Meadowlands site, located seven miles away from the inner city and reachable only by car or bus. It is, in other words, exactly the kind of suburban development that environmentalists like RFK, Jr., have long lamented.

Given that the development project so clearly sets at odds the goals of economic development and environmental protection, Meadowlands Mills has now also become a litmus test for Al Gore's environmental agenda. The decision to move forward with an auto-centric wetlands-filling development is the sort of choice that Al Gore criticized in his 1992 best-seller Earth in the Balance; indeed, it's the sort of policy decision he has railed against as part of his antisprawl campaign message. But at present, the vice president is effectively aligned with developer Siegel and his German investors, and against RFK, Jr., and local green activists. With prominent supporters of the vice president arrayed on either side of the debate, Gore's final decision on the matter will say a lot about how he chooses his friends and how he defines his environmentalism.

The Developer and the Environmentalist

On one side of the Meadowlands power struggle is the Mills Corporation, a real-estate investment trust led by Siegel, a sleek 44-year-old who sports spiffy European suits, an earring, and the ingenuous enthusiasm of a born salesman. Since opening Potomac Mills 30 miles south of Washington in 1985, the company has built 11 more mega-malls throughout North America, including Sawgrass Mills north of Miami, which is reputed to be one of the country's most profitable malls. "We are involved in much more than just owning and running shopping complexes," he told shareholders in the company's 1998 annual report. "We are orchestrating and fine tuning an ever-evolving group of exceptional retail and entertainment experiences."

Mills Corporation has paved the way for its many development projects with a savvy combination of corporate munificence and political philanthropy. The corporation belongs to the welfare-to-work initiative, a consortium of corporations involved in hiring former welfare recipients for entry-level jobs. Mills claims, for instance, to have hired 200 formerly out-of-work people at its Katy Mills in Houston. "As a company we've identified a real opportunity in this area," says Mills Corporation Vice President Mark Rivers. "Our top executives have met with [the] president and vice president and struck up what might be called a friendship."

On November 4, Siegel stood on stage with President Clinton at Malcolm X Shabbazz High School in Newark as the president challenged corporate America to meet its moral obligation to invest in the nation's inner cities. To much applause, the president announced that Mills Corporation was pledging to hire 1,000 Newark residents to work at Meadowlands Mills.

The corporation's efforts to get Washington's approval for its mall has also involved bipartisan generosity. Since 1996 the company has given at least $125,000 to Democratic and Republican state candidates and committees in New Jersey. In March 1999, Siegel, three top associates, and their spouses gave another $8,000 to New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli, a Democrat and mall supporter. Five months later, the company's Meadowlands Mills subsidiary gave $10,000 to the Republican National Committee.

But the most striking Mills contributions came last April when company executives, their spouses, and associated contractors donated at least $43,000 to the Gore 2000 campaign.

n the other side of the Meadowlands struggle is the Hackensack Meadowlands Preservation Alliance, a grass-roots coalition made up of citizens, businesses, and private organizations. The alliance opposes the development of any wetlands in general and the building of Meadowlands Mills in particular. And it doesn't make campaign contributions.

On the surface, the alliance would seem to be a natural Gore constituency. It includes such Gore-friendly national environmental groups as the Sierra Club and a local activist group called Baykeeper, which has long championed the Meadowlands against developers. There are activists like Bill Sheehan, a native of Secaucus who gives boat tours of the vast marshes and who started the Meadowlands's first canoe concession last summer. There are civic groups like the Paramus Chamber of Commerce, which fears the effects of a mall on its downtown business district. The owners of a nearby mall who are afraid the Mills mall will siphon off their own business have also contributed money.

And then there is Bobby Kennedy, Jr., who assists this underfunded movement with moral support, legal advice, and political connections. Kennedy has overcome headlines of youthful drug excess to build a reputation defending the Hudson River from both polluters and developers. As codirector of the Pace University Environmental Litigation Clinic in White Plains, New York, he has a team of lawyers at his disposal. He boasts that his students have forced polluters to spend almost $2 billion in cleanup and preservation efforts along the Hudson.

Kennedy has also gone out on a limb for Gore. When the vice president's rival for the Democratic nomination, Bill Bradley, won the endorsement of Friends of the Earth last fall, Kennedy quickly organized a press conference on Gore's behalf. Flanked by two old-money Republican friends, RFK, Jr., endorsed Gore as "the strongest environmentalist running for the White House since Teddy Roosevelt."

Mall opponents like Kennedy stress that how Gore chooses between the business interests represented by Larry Siegel and the conservation forces represented by Bobby Kennedy, Jr., has implications far beyond the marshy confines of the Meadowlands. From Walden Woods in Concord, Massachusetts, to the Wapato Hills in Tacoma, Washington, there are ongoing struggles over whether the country's surviving wetlands should be preserved or developed.

In South Florida, for instance, the administration's once-bold plans to restore the Everglades have foundered as sugar companies and housing developers have thwarted wetlands reclamation efforts. In southern California, a grass-roots movement is contesting the development of Playa Vista, 1,087 acres of open space in metropolitan Los Angeles where migratory birds roost among dump sites and wetlands. The resolution of the Meadowlands dispute, says Kennedy, "is going to be the paradigm for negotiated compromises over the Clean Water Act. This is how it is going to be done."

"There's Only One Meadowlands"

Modern efforts to restore the Meadowlands began only in the 1970s. With the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, the 1972 Clean Water Act, and the 1972 Coastal Zone Management Act, the governance of the Meadowlands changed forever. Illegal dumping was curbed. Wetlands were formally protected. Development required environmental impact statements and permits from the Army Corps of Engineers.

These restorations had a tangible effect. Long-gone fish species returned. The number of bird species nesting there doubled over the next 20 years. More and more people came to understand that the Meadowlands was not a punch line in the rearview mirror but a unique urban open space, an oasis the size of Manhattan hidden in the heart of metropolitan New York.

But encroachments on the salt marshes continued. Of the original 21,000 acres of Meadowlands, only about 9,000 remained in 1970. The Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission (HMDC), the local agency in charge of cleaning up and developing the area, took another 576 acres in 1974 when it built Giants Stadium and a sports/concert arena. By 1994 the HMDC envisioned an additional 842 acres of development around the Meadowlands, and the Mills Corporation was key to their plans.

The company had acquired a mortgage interest in a large tract of marsh next to Interstate 95, just north of the sports complex. The site was a promising locale for the Mills formula--high-end stores with discount prices in a theme park-like setting. With 11 million people living in a 20-mile radius, the site could be a retail gold mine. In June 1995, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a draft environmental impact statement on the development commission's plans. The Mills Corporation's plan to pave over 206 acres of wetlands to build a proposed 2.1-million-square-foot mega-mall was provisionally approved.

As required by law, the Army Corps of Engineers solicited reactions from the public; predictably, environmentalists screamed. More than 1,000 comments came in. Some were supportive of the mall, but the vast majority--85 percent--criticized the destruction of wetlands. Many citizens asked why the mall couldn't be located somewhere else. "There are a lot of malls in northern New Jersey," RFK, Jr., says. "There's only one Meadowlands."

With public reaction in hand, the federal and state agencies set out to rewrite a final draft of what is known as the Meadowlands SAMP, the Special Area Management Plan. But consensus about what the SAMP should allow was--and is--elusive. The HMDC was strongly in favor of the mall. The Army Corps of Engineers showed its traditional sympathy for those who want to build. Regional officials of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service balked, seeing no legal rationale for permitting any development in the Meadowlands.

Federal law is specific and redundant on the issue of wetlands in coastal areas, noted opponents of the mall inside and outside the government. Wetlands can only be developed for "waterdependent uses," according to the Coastal Zone Management Act. Alternative sites that do not involve wetlands destruction must be identified and considered. "To say in the 1990s that you want to destroy 200 acres of wetlands to build a shopping mall is just outrageous in terms of what the law will allow," RFK, Jr., said.

But the mall had many supporters, especially among elected officials, businessmen, and union leaders. Senator Torricelli remained on Mills's side. The local council of construction unions saw the mall as a source of jobs and urged expedited approval.

With an infusion of $17 million from Kan Am, a German investment consortium, and $12 million of its own, Mills Corporation set out to bolster its case for the mega-mall. Siegel rented the lobbying services of a liberal Democrat, former Texas Governor Ann Richards, and a leading New Jersey Republican, Christine Todd Whitman's former campaign co-chair Hazel Gluck, to make Mills's case to elected officials in Trenton and Washington.

The White House Steps In

As the laborious process of public hearings and inter-agency meetings wore on, the Clinton White House got involved in the Meadowlands dispute. In the summer of 1997, John Adams, the president of the National Resources Defense Council, wrote a memo to the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), advising Clinton on environmental policy. In it, Adams called attention to the proposed developments in the Meadowlands, especially the mall. "I said it was a bad project and they should take a good hard look at it," Adams said in a recent interview.

Bradley M. Campbell, who was then an associate director of the CEQ with responsibilities for toxic waste, began meeting with all parties of the Meadowlands dispute. Along with his CEQ superiors, Campbell was keen to forge a compromise. As a sailor and fisherman himself, he put a premium on environmental protection. He wanted to wrap up an agreement that would protect wetlands forever and quickly, and discourage litigation from would-be developers.

Mills Corporation executives responded to Campbell's cajoling by agreeing to scale back the size of their project and promising to fund the restoration of degraded wetlands elsewhere in the Meadowlands. This pledge, a practice known as "mitigation," encouraged Campbell. He saw it as a way to accommodate a company with legitimate property interests in the Meadowlands while satisfying the Fish and Wildlife Service and the other environmental agencies that the rest of the watershed would be protected forever. With Mills footing the entire bill, the wetlands lost to the mall would be replaced elsewhere in the area by four or five times as much acreage, according to Campbell.

Environmentalists weren't swayed. "The Clean Water Act doesn't say that we are going to protect wetlands until somebody comes along with enough money to pay for restoration somewhere else," Kennedy retorted. "It says that wetlands are a community resource, owned by the people for their use and enjoyment. Nobody has the right to liquidate them for cash."

Meanwhile the White House itself was moving forward with an expansive new national policy for wetlands preservation. In February 1998, Clinton and Gore went to scenic Baltimore Harbor to announce a "Clean Water Action Plan," which included the goal of achieving "a net increase of 100,000 wetland acres per year by the year 2005." New Jersey environmentalists saw their opening.

Where better to start than the Meadowlands, they asked, and promptly called a press conference urging the Clinton administration to come out against Meadowlands Mills contributing 206 acres of wetlands toward the 100,000-acre goal.

The administration, however, saw no grounds for blocking Mills's plans. Without some sort of comprehensive plan, policy makers feared that the Meadowlands dispute could drag on for years with no provision for protecting any of the existing wetlands. Campbell worried that property owners who sued the government for "takings" of the value of their Meadowlands holdings would find a sympathetic audience among federal judges appointed by presidents Reagan and Bush. Without a compromise that accommodated Mills, he reasoned, wetlands everywhere would actually be more vulnerable. "If we can't balance the environment and development interests in the Meadowlands," Campbell told The Boston Globe in August 1998, "it will be a major setback for preservation efforts across the country."

Contributions and Regulatory Decisions

On Thursday, April 22, 1999, the future of the Meadowlands began to take shape far from public view. The agencies involved in preparing the SAMP announced that, "based on consultations to date," they had tentatively decided to reduce the amount of wetlands to be set aside for commercial development in the Meadowlands. Instead of 842 acres going for development, only 465 acres would be allowed. The Meadowlands Mills site was more than cut in half, from 206 acres to 90 acres--more than enough to build a mall somewhat smaller than originally planned. Campbell was pleased to sign his name to the agreement.

Kennedy, however, was disgusted. "Its an old developer's trick," he said. "You claim you want to do something totally outrageous and then you scale it back. You say, 'I'm being reasonable here. I'm willing to compromise.' That is not a compromise in my view. To me, it's like putting lipstick on a donkey."

But the published plan gave Larry Siegel and the Mills Corporation something they never had before: a semi-official federal blessing for their mall. The plan was not final, but its fine print served notice that "there would be heavy presumption against adverse agency comment and or/action" on its provisions. Wall Street reacted favorably. Merrill Lynch real-estate analysts upgraded its rating of Mills's stock from neutral to "buy."

The Mills Corporation itself also reacted favorably. A week after the draft SAMP appeared in the Federal Register, the daily compendium of U.S. government actions, several dozen checks arrived at the headquarters of the Gore 2000 campaign. Corporate contributions are illegal under campaign finance laws, but the "bundling" of individual contributions is not. There was $1,000 from Larry Siegel and $1,000 from each of his vice presidents, and from virtually every top executive in the Mills corporate structure. There were checks from family members of top executives, and there were checks from contractors who do business with Mills. Federal Election Commission records show at least $43,000 in contributions attributable to Mills executives, family members, and contractors were made to Gore on April 28 and 29. Mills vice president Mark Rivers said a company executive (whom he declined to name) solicited the contributions in accordance with campaign law.

The administration's move in favor of the mall project and the Mills Corporation's substantial contribution to the Gore campaign a week later is, needless to say, an eyebrow-raising coincidence. Not surprisingly, the Mills Corporation strongly denies any connection. Rivers says it would be a "connect-the-dots fantasy" to suggest that the contributions were in any way related to the publication of the draft SAMP. "The SAMP process has been in the works for years," he says. "What the notice meant for us was only overcoming one of a hundred speed bumps in the process."

RFK, Jr., says it would be unrealistic not to connect the Mills Corporation contributions and the White House policy on wetlands. "It is disappointing to see Al Gore, who I admire, succumb to this kind of mercenary approach. But this is endemic to American politics today," he says. "The people's common resources of clean air, clean water, rivers, bays, and fisheries are being liquidated for cash by large corporations and their paid servants in Washington."

The vice president's campaign, for its part, denies any connection. "With all due respect to Bobby Kennedy," says White House aide Laura Quinn, "there is no relationship between the campaign contributions and administration policy. The CEQ and the campaign are separate organizations." Quinn also plays down the extent of Gore's role in particular policy decisions without quite denying his knowledge of and involvement with them. When asked about the publication of the SAMP, Quinn says that Gore "hasn't been involved [on] a day-to-day basis" in the making of Meadowlands policy, while acknowledging that the vice president does get "lots of update memos" on a wide variety of environmental policy issues. "The vice president," she says, "is always seeking solutions that balance the interests of the environment and the community."

Connections between campaign contributions and favorable regulatory decisions are difficult to nail down. And in an operation as vast as Gore's presidential campaign, it is perhaps too cynical to imagine that any direct quid pro quo took place. But to look for such an arrangement might be to miss the forest for the trees. The Meadowlands Mills story illuminates how monetary contributions press upon regulatory and administrative decisions, shaping them in ways friendly to those with contributions to give--and lead to decisions that environmentally concerned politicians like Al Gore might not otherwise make.

"As revised, the SAMP is the best hope for permanent protection of natural resources in the Meadowlands," says Brad Campbell. "It says yes to limited development in those few areas where it's appropriate, secures major improvements for 8,500 acres of wetlands, and puts those sensitive and threatened lands permanently off limits to future development."

For his part, Kennedy says he still supports Gore. "If the question is, How can I support the vice president with such blatant trade-offs going on, I would answer that by saying that such trade-offs were more common under Reagan and Bush--and are much more common in Texas today under George W. Bush--than they would be in a Gore administration." ยค