Thirteen years and almost $5 billion in, there’s actually not much to see here. At first glance, the under-construction American Dream Mall in East Rutherford, New Jersey looks like an abandoned Midwest mall, or a barren Chinese shopping mecca, shiny and new but with few tenants and even fewer visitors.
But by summer of next year, American Dream’s owners hope to premier the biggest, most exciting, most exclusive, cutting-edge shopping-dining-entertainment extravaganza this side of Dubai. They just don’t want you to call it a mall.
Triple Five, the company behind the Mall of America in Minnesota and the West Edmonton Mall in Canada (both the largest in their respective countries), is betting that it can bring a buzz, cachet, and market intelligence to a site that has dogged its previous owners, and left a hulking, contentious eyesore on New Jersey’s landscape for over a decade.
American Dream was first conceived as Meadowlands Xanadu back in 2003 by the Mills Corporation and the State of New Jersey as a complement to the now-defunct Izod Center sports arena. Following bankruptcy by Mills in 2006, the project was picked up by Colony Capital, a real estate fund. Construction stalled in 2009 when financing dried up following the financial crisis. Triple Five acquired the development rights in 2011 and construction resumed in 2013.
Rendering of the indoor ski slope
But ten years in the making and billions of dollars already sunk, the new owners were under pressure to add value to a project that for so long seemed like an irredeemable white elephant. So Triple Five tacked on an amusement park, an indoor water park, and then some. American Dream’s list of attractions reads like something that might be proposed in Las Vegas circa 2006, so it’s no surprise the project’s detractors have held onto a little skepticism.
Spread across 91 acres amid a sea of 33,000 parking spaces and a daily projected workforce of 10,000, American Dream is the proverbial city-within-a-city. At 2.3 million square feet, the shopping area is slightly larger than Macy’s Herald Square. A 150,000-square-foot food hall will boast 15 sit-down restaurants, 50 to-go food options and what is apparently the world’s first exclusively Kosher food court.
Interior photo of the indoor ski slope
The world’s first DreamWorks Park, at 300,000 square feet, plus a 225,000-square-foot indoor water park next door, will each be the largest of their kind in North America, and will feature zones dedicated to Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar and Shrek. The first indoor ski and snowboard park in the Western Hemisphere will be 16 stories high, and will be accompanied by a lounge and ski-themed shopping area. A 1,500-seat performing arts venue will play host to a Cirque du Soleil show based on the music of a to-be-announced pop superstar. Rounding out the experience are an indoor ice skating rink, a 300-foot-tall observation wheel, a bowling alley, an aquarium, a mini golf course, and a 26-screen dine-in movie theater featuring technology that coordinates scents with scenes on the screen.
Once all is said and done, American Dream will have cost upwards of $5.2 billion, making it, by the owner’s own estimate, the most expensive retail project on earth. Its marketers are counting on tourists to make up 50% of the 40 million visitors projected to visit annually. They are focusing particular attention on the affluent Chinese tourist, for whom the current most-visited attraction in the New York City area is the Woodbury Common outlet mall in Central Valley. But critics suggest a suburban New Jersey mall, no matter how flashy, may be a hard sell to the typical New York City visitor.
Rendering of “The Collections” luxury shopping area (above), interior photo (below)
Once open, New Jersey Transit will begin running its Meadowlands Rail Line to the station near the mall on a more frequent schedule. At present, the station is only serviced on game or other event days at nearby MetLife Stadium. The project’s proximity to MetLife has brought its own headaches. Current and previous developers have been tied up in a number of lawsuits with the Giants and Jets NFL teams, which think the project will bring too much traffic and take up too much parking. Triple Five successfully negotiated its way out of a proposal that would have closed the mall completely on game days. But thanks to Bergen County’s Blue Law, the mall will still not be allowed to open on Sundays.
Few big new malls are being built in this country; many have already been torn down, victims of the recession or e-commerce or both. The ones that have survived are usually more upscale “destinations,” where people go to dine, promenade, and catch a movie, as well as maybe shop. And these have thrived. American Dream is aiming to be, if not the country’s biggest mall, then its most un-mally big mall. Considering it has been called “the ugliest damn building in New Jersey and maybe America” by the state’s own governor, Chris Christie, that will be a distinction it can live with.
Next, check out the abandoned portion of Action Park, a notorious amusement park in New Jersey.