After 15 Years, Dream Mall Finally Becomes a Reality

By Michael Corkery and 

THE NEW YORK TIMES

Oct. 25, 2019

The American Dream mall will open Friday on a former swamp in the Meadowlands, though there will be no retailers until next year.

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It has taken 15 years, three owners, two names and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of taxpayer incentives, but a giant mall built on a former swamp in the Meadowlands — and less than 10 miles away from the shopping haven of Manhattan — is finally opening on Friday.

Sort of.

The $5 billion development, formerly known as Xanadu and now called American Dream, will eventually feature roughly 3 million square feet of stores, water slides, a caviar bar and an indoor ski slope that promises man-made snow even in the height of a New Jersey summer. It is an attempt to lure crowds to a spot not easily accessible by public transportation and which most people know primarily from visits for National Football League games or concerts at MetLife Stadium.

But when the complex opens on Friday, visitors will not find anyplace to shop or much to eat. The property’s owner, the Canadian real estate firm Triple Five Group, is introducing American Dream in “chapters.” The first consists of an ice-skating rink and a Nickelodeon amusement park that claims to have one of the world’s steepest roller coasters and will offer regular “slime” shows.

Triple Five plans to unveil a DreamWorks-themed water park and the ski slope by the end of this year, and said that more than 300 stores, the essential retail part of the development, are slated to open in March. During a tour last week, few signs hung above dark, partially constructed stores and dust and orange cones littered boards protecting tiled flooring.

Still, even a partial opening of the mall — publicists said they preferred the term “style and entertainment destination” — is a milestone. The project broke ground in 2004 but construction halted with the recession. In 2011, Triple Five, which also owns the Mall of America outside Minneapolis, took over with big plans to make American Dream a globally recognized megamall. At the time, a 2013 opening date was announced. That was subsequently pushed back at least four times.

In that time, the retail landscape has shifted rapidly and major mall developments have dropped off. Some originally announced tenants of American Dream, like Toys ‘R’ Us and Barneys, are now bankrupt.

“Maybe pre-recession, there were some massive mall developments, but this is extremely unique,” said Vince Tibone, a retail analyst at Green Street Advisors.

American Dream is a huge, some say unrealistic, bet that tens of thousands of people will visit the Meadowlands each day to play, as well as shop in stores like H&M and Hermès that are readily available in Manhattan. Triple Five has said that it anticipates 40 million visitors a year — on par with Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. This despite the fact that Bergen County, the mall’s home, prohibits retail sales on Sundays.

Don Ghermezian, president of Triple Five and chief executive of American Dream, said that the development “absolutely” planned to compete with parks like Disney and would put northern New Jersey “on the map” as a global tourist destination.

“You don’t need to get in your plane to fly to Orlando anymore,” he said. “You can just come across the river.”

Mr. Ghermezian said he was confident that “the power of the center” would attract local and international visitors, pointing to his family’s success with the Mall of America and Canada’s West Edmonton Mall.

American Dream is planning to run a bus service that leaves Port Authority regularly and offer shuttles from a ferry. Triple Five has also purchased a helicopter company to bring visitors to three helipads on the property.

Skeptics, though, question whether East Rutherford can become a tourist mecca.

“Are tourists really going to say, ‘Let’s see a Yankee game and a Rockettes show and then take a bus from Port Authority to New Jersey to go to the mall?” said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter, who has been battling to prevent a development from opening on the site for all of his 22 years at the environmental group.

The financial risks to investors are significant. The development, which sits on state land, qualified for tax-free debt financing. But no local entities — not the state nor the borough of East Rutherford — arranged the financing. American Dream tapped a state agency in Wisconsin that was willing to borrow about $1.1 billion in bonds that allowed the complex to finally get built.

Some of the tax-exempt bonds are owned by funds managed by firms like Vanguard and Putnam, according to an analysis by Morningstar Direct. The bond documents include 30 pages of potential risks, including that attendance “may be depressed from desired levels” if tourists in New York are not willing to travel to the Meadowlands.

“I am skeptical,’’ said Lisa Washburn, chief credit officer for Municipal Market Analytics. “But there may be something about the combination of retail and entertainment at this level that will work.”

Mr. Ghermezian declined to discuss details around the financing.

New Jersey taxpayers have already sunk hundreds of millions of dollars on improving the roads leading to American Dream and have provided its owners with generous breaks like allowing sales tax revenue from the mall to be set aside to pay down debt.

Goldman Sachs is part of a group of lenders that have agreed to lend the project an additional $1.6 billion, but if American Dream defaults, the banks are entitled to an ownership stake in the Mall of America, which is Triple Five’s crown jewel.

Environmentalists have raised concerns about the emissions from the thousands of cars expected at the American Dream each day. Certain requirements were waived, Mr. Tittel said, that would have made the property energy efficient. The mall is expected to consume vast amounts of energy to support its entertainment attractions — including the cavernous ski hill facility that will be maintained at a temperature below freezing year round.

Flooding could be another problem. The Meadowlands, where wetlands have been filled in over the years to give rise to development, were battered with storm surge during Hurricane Sandy.

Discussions for a giant development on the site date to the mid 1990s. The proposal that finally got off the ground was a giant mall named Xanadu, an “idealized place of great magnificence and beauty,” and also the title of a 1980 film, a musical fantasy starring Olivia Newton-John.

The Mills Corporation, a real estate developer, started building the mall in 2004 and nearly completed it. There was even merchandise stocked in many of the stores, but the mall never opened because Mills ran into financial trouble. Xanadu then found a new backer, a joint venture that included a firm founded by Steve Mnuchin, now the treasury secretary, and another owned by Thomas J. Barrack Jr., a billionaire who planned President Trump’s inauguration.

The timing was less than ideal. The 2008 financial crisis hit, bank lending seized up and Xanadu was postponed. The huge structure, which former Governor Chris Christie once called the “ugliest” building in New Jersey, sat empty and visible to the hordes of New Jersey commuters who passed it every day.

Triple Five entered in 2011, promising a fresh start and a new design that would include more entertainment and more thrills.

Triple Five said that the complex would house the world’s biggest wave pool and its largest candy store. The New Jersey Hall of Fame, which honors native luminaries like Jon Bon Jovi, is also planning to lease space.

The constant delays are a sensitive issue. Caudalie, a skin-care company that signed a lease for a store at the American Dream in 2016, filed a lawsuit against the mall operator last year, saying that it was misled about the project’s opening date, its occupancy and funding.

The brand sought to end its lease citing breach of its terms and to retrieve its security deposit, which it said American Dream initially resisted. The case was settled shortly thereafter. A lawyer for Caudalie declined to comment.

Last week, workers were installing moss in an indoor garden at one end of the complex, while other contractors were bundled against blowing snow inside the ski hill.

Mr. Ghermezian said it would be a “great injustice” to the Nickelodeon park to open it as part of a broader unveil of American Dream. He dismissed questions about why the theme park was opening when its main concession stands were not yet ready.

“If you want to be a nit-picker, I can’t stop you from doing that,” he said.

Mr. Ghermezian said anyone who doubted the project’s viability should remember that his family used its other mall properties as collateral and invested “substantial amounts of our own personal money into this project.”

“We believe we are visionaries,” he said. “And sometimes to be a visionary, to step outside of the norm, you have to think big.”

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