Steve Bruch recalls seeing the future site of the Jersey Gardens mall for the first time in late 1997. He had just started working for Glimcher Realty Trust of Columbus, Ohio, which had purchased 98 acres of a former 166-acre landfill in Elizabeth, N.J., near Newark Bay.

Workers had all but covered the landfill with dredge scraped from shipping lanes in New Jersey and New York harbors, and Bruch maintains he would have turned down the position at Glimcher and moved back to Seattle if he had seen the site - or smelled it - earlier.

"I would sit on the airplane going back to Columbus and notice that something really stunk, and I found out after awhile it was my shoes," recalls Bruch, senior project director.

The stench was the least of Glimcher's concerns. Since 1992, a handful of other developers had abandoned pursuits to put retail on the site, and industry observers questioned whether Glimcher could succeed.

The property had once brimmed with more than 1 million cubic yards of trash, and a deep, unsightly but important mile-long ditch split the site. More than 20 permits from state and federal agencies were required. The highly corrosive environment required special construction techniques and materials. Glimcher had to contend with the possibility of the odorless but combustible methane gas seeping into the mall as the trash below decayed.

Despite the challenges, Glimcher saw the potential for a successful retail hub in the area.

OENJ Corp., a Bayonne, N.J., firm that became OENJ Cherokee Corp. after a merger last year, had purchased the landfill in 1992 and spent $20.5 million on remediation and capping and sealing it, a process that encapsulates pollution rather than removing it. Glimcher spent about $350 million on the project, about $140 million of which came from public funds for construction of seven bridges and other infrastructure projects around the mall.

The bet so far has paid off. The 1.7 million sq. ft. Jersey Gardens - the largest outlet mall in New Jersey - opened in late 1999 and features more than 200 retailers, including big-box category-killers, manufacturer outlets, off-price concepts, traditional retailers and food.

The population within 70 miles of the mall totals 21 million, and the average annual household income is $70,000 a year. The mall is on the Newark International Airport exit of the New Jersey Turnpike, and shuttle buses run between the mall and the airport. Shuttle buses also ferry travelers between the mall and midtown Manhattan, some 15 miles away. Light rail plans call for a stop at the mall.

"It's a tremendous success far beyond our expectations," says Michael Glimcher, president of the company.

Outstanding in his brownfield To date, Jersey Gardens marks the most ambitious New Jersey project to turn a brownfield into land suitable for retail use. Other, similar projects are under way in the state.

Over the past decade, the state has assembled one of the most aggressive brownfield redevelopment programs in the country. For developers that choose to tackle the sites, incentives include tax breaks, financing assistance, exemptions from liability and a shield from lawsuits for past contamination later discovered. The Jersey Gardens project even sparked the creation of additional brownfield laws.

Brownfields are abandoned, idle or underused industrial and commercial facilities where environmental contamination complicates expansion or redevelopment. They're common in northern New Jersey, one of the most densely populated areas in the United States, where the death of heavy industry has left thousands of acres scarred.

"You have a tremendous amount of development in green areas out on the periphery, but you have an awful lot of wasteland along the waterfront, which should be prime areas," says Linda Morgan, vice president of OENJ Cherokee. "They should really be brought back because they're so well accessed by roads and rail and boat."

OENJ Cherokee has a $250 million equity fund to buy, clean up, cap and redevelop brownfield properties. The company still has about 40 remediated acres of waterfront property next to the mall, where it plans to develop offices, a marina, a ferry terminal and a light rail station.

After OENJ purchased the Jersey Gardens site, it hired Sadat Associates Inc. of Princeton, N.J., to conduct studies, establish a remediation plan and complete the tedious permitting process. How the plan came together depended a little on the developer's proposal, and it took a few years to find a willing one.

"There were three developers that became interested in the project, and we would have to modify the permits to meet their plans," recalls Bashar Assadi, assistant vice president of Sadat Associates. "For one reason or another, those developers did not materialize, and eventually Glimcher went with it."

Working with OENJ, Sadat and Glimcher were several government agencies, including the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Companies working with the team included Langan Engineering and Environmental Services Inc., Converse Consultants and Lippincott Jacobs & Gouda Engineers, all of New Jersey, and Mays Consulting & Evaluation Services Inc. of Delaware, Ohio.

Cap and seal The mile-long ditch, which handles tidal flow from Newark Bay and supplies the area's wetlands, early on became a primary focus of the remediation team. OENJ placed in the ditch a large pipe made of special, non-corrosive concrete and wrapped in rubber PVC material. When it came time to build over the pipe, Bruch says, Glimcher had to monitor it with laser instruments that could pick up movement of an eighth of an inch to make sure the pipe remained undisturbed.

OENJ also installed a system to prevent contaminated runoff from mixing with the tidal flow. Pipes collect the runoff and dispose of it in the sanitary lines. The drain pipe moves untainted storm water only when two detention ponds get too full.

To cap the site, OENJ brought in more than 2.2 million cubic yards of material. The first layer comprised dredge, which was mixed with ingredients such as lime and cement to give it strength. OENJ also used recycled products such as glass crushed to the consistency of sugar and masonry formed into a cobblestone-like compound. Thrown together, the dredge and other ingredients created a lava-like soup that set up hard.

Workers then had to compact the trash below the dredge. A crane operator would raise a 17-ton weight of 100 sq. ft. about 60 feet in the air and drop it, which created a roughly 4-foot crater. The crane then would move about 8 feet and do it again. OENJ then topped the dredge with up to 3 feet of quality dirt, and the site was compacted again following the same routine. When finished, the site had grown about 20 feet.

Next came the seal, for the asphalt parking lot and roads and the footprint of themall. Despite the compaction work, concern over settling - which could affect pipes holding utilities and other underground infrastructure -necessitated the introduction of special conduits. Langan used pipes that could stretch a good deal for the water and sanitary lines to protect from breaks that might result from settling. In addition, Converse Consultants designed the pavement to ensure uniform settling, preventing what Bruch calls an "up and down" feeling.

Constructing with trash in mind When it came to building the mall, the trash underneath the building forced two big construction measures.

First, trash alone makes for a corrosive environment. But the dredge mixed with cement made the corrosive nature of the site even worse and an even bigger threat to the 42 miles of metal piles on which Glimcher built the mall, says Mike Semeraro, a principal of Langan.

To help protect the piles from corrosion, Langan put a grid of what amounts to welded rebar within the building's slab and connected it to the piles. If the soil becomes too corrosive, engineers can use a combination of electricity and magnesium rods in the ground to ward off corrosion.

"So many elements were making the soil corrosive that it made this approach prudent," Semeraro says. "You can't go back and add this type of protection after the mall is constructed."

Second, because rotting garbage emits methane that rises, Glimcher had to devise a system that would vent the highly combustible but odorless gas. While the state's environmental protection arm required only a passive venting system, Glimcher decided to go further.

Bringing in fresh air With the help of Lippincott Jacobs & Gouda, Glimcher put a sealed liner and a system of tubes underneath the mall. The tubes bring fresh air under the building and then sends it up pipes outside the building along with any gases the trash has emitted. Five roof fans blow the air into the atmosphere.

Inside the mall, 200 methane detectors constantly monitor conditions. If they caught a whiff of methane, Bruch says, a call would go to the fire department, the mall doors would open and the air-conditioning system would go into high gear. He doubts it ever happening. Two random samples of air retrieved from the bottom of the building failed to discover any measurable methane, and the landfill contains mostly construction material rather than methane-producing organic trash. Still, Glimcher wanted to be sure.

"The (state environmental protection department) told us what we were doing was overkill," Bruch says. "Having never done this before, we were a little nervous."

Wetlands created Lastly, the remediation team created new wetlands over several acres north of the mall and put in native plants. That involved "de-mucking" the area (removing a couple of feet of soil and whatever else happened to be there), adding good dirt and flooding it.

Now that the seven-year project is open, the mall and brownfield work have received praise throughout New Jersey. Completing the job successfully still stuns Bruch, however, who at one time questioned how such a huge hodgepodge of government agencies and businesses could work together toward a common goal.

"We learned a lot," he says. "It was tough, but it turned out pretty good. The mall is a mecca of sorts because there's really no one place that you can go to meet in that Newark-Elizabeth area."