By ANNE D’INNOCENZIO and DAVID PORTER
The Associated Press
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — More than two decades ago when a mega entertainment and shopping complex was being conceived on a vast swath of swamp land in New Jersey, the iPhone didn’t exist, Amazon was selling only books online and people could scarcely conceive of turning to something besides malls for shopping.
Now, after endless fits and starts and billions of dollars spent, American Dream is officially opening its doors to the public. It will have 3 million square feet of space for lease, making it the second largest mall in the U.S. and the third largest in North America. Its attractions are eventually to include a 16-story indoor ski slope, rollercoaster, waterpark and 450 retail, food and specialty shops.
The big question is: Who will come?
In the retail industry, consumers are often glued to their iPhones and smartphones, where they can do their shopping without ever leaving their couch. Amazon has turned into the biggest online retailer in the world. Traffic at malls, meanwhile, has declined by 10% since the late 1990s, according to an estimate by Coresight Research.
It’s a situation that’s causing disruption in places far from New Jersey. In Wisconsin, local officials have embarked on ambitious plans to overhaul malls like the Bayshore Town Center in Glendale and Brookfield Square after seeing large anchor stores close. Meanwhile, relatively new malls like the Corners at Brookfield, west of Milwaukee, have experimented with mixing in retail with residential and recreational uses to ensure they continue to attract tenants and shoppers.
A report from Credit Suisse published two years ago predicted that as many as a quarter of all shopping malls nationally will close by 2022. Since 2015, only nine malls have been built, according to CoStar Group, a real estate research firm.
Amid these trying circumstances, the developers behind the American Dream shopping center in New Jersey are hoping to draw 40 million visitors in their first year. The attractions they intend to use to accomplish this goal include a bunny field and an aviary. There will also be a doggy day care and a luxury wing, where shoppers can sip champagne and sample caviar as they wait to have their designer handbags wrapped. Two hotels with a total of 3,500 rooms are being planned next to the complex.
The mall won’t be completely operational until next spring, when several hundred stores will open. The Nickelodeon amusement park and an ice skating rink open Friday; its other attractions will open in phases by the end of this year.
“You can make it your backyard playground if you live in Manhattan or even if you’re in New Jersey,” said Ken Downing, chief creative officer for Triple Five Group, the mall’s developer. “It’s a staycation. So, it’s a little bit of competing with mindset and emotion, far more than a property or even Disneyland.”
The project was originally to be called Xanadu and was to have the largest Ferris wheel in the world. Construction on it started in 2004 but soon languished. Meanwhile, its multi-colored, checkerboard exterior — since removed — became a subject of derision, including from then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who called it “an offense to the eyes” and “the ugliest damn building in New Jersey and maybe America.”
The project was suspended in 2009 during the recession after a Lehmann Bros. affiliate failed to pay for its share of the construction. Creditors seized the project in 2010, and Triple Five came on board a year later, renaming it American Dream.
Triple Five envisioned American Dream as a hub for tourists and locals, taking a page from two other malls it had developed. Those include the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada and Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota — the two largest malls in North America. Entertainment was a big selling point for both, accounting for 20% of the West Edmonton Mall’s space and 30% of Mall of America’s.
American Dream has its fair share of skeptics who wonder about its chances of success, especially given its proximity to New York City less than 10 miles away.
“This development will either sink or swim,” said Jason Goldberg, chief commerce strategy officer of Publicis Communications. “It’s going to be tough to get a lot of attention when you are next to a much bigger amusement park — Manhattan.”