EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. _With a quarter of malls in the U.S. predicted to close within five years, Canadian developer Triple Five Group is building a giant anti-mall in northern New Jersey, just outside Manhattan.
The much-delayed $5 billion complex, modestly called American Dream, will resemble something straight out of a Walt Disney movie – a jumbo-sized hybrid between a shopping center and amusement park that some see as a model for what top malls are becoming.
“The future of malls is that they will have to offer shopping experiences you can’t get anywhere else in the form of food and beverage, unique entertainment opportunities, and exclusive stores,” said JLL’s James Cook, director of retail research for the Americas. “You certainly need something” unique.
American Dream meets all the criteria, even if it’s on its third builder and has endured multiple setbacks over more than a decade.
“It will have less retail space than [the nation’s largest] Mall of America and 60 percent more in entertainment offerings,” said Debbie Patire, Triple Five’s senior vice president of marketing. “But it really isn’t about size these days. It is about the customer experience and having the right mix of components, flagship and new-to-market retail, combined with best-in-class entertainment, attractions, and restaurants.”
Phase 1 of American Dream was slated to open this summer. Now set for March 2019, it is rising beside MetLife Stadium, where the NFL’s Giants and Jets play. It will encompass three million square feet, with half devoted to 13 attractions, including a DreamWorks Waterpark featuring elements of “Shrek’s Soggy Swamp,” a Nickelodeon Universe theme park, and a 16-story Big Snow America Indoor Ski Hill.
If that bores you, there’s also a 1,350-seat live-performance Cirque Du Soleil theater, a Sea Life Aquarium, a Legoland Discovery Center, an 18-hole miniature golf course, an indoor NHL-sized ice rink, an Observation Wheel resembling the giant London Eye Ferris wheel, and dine-in cinemas with Cinemex X4D, which provides rain, snow, and scents linked to on-screen action.
But wait – for shoppers, there’s Saks Fifth Avenue, Hermes, Microsoft, Lululemon, Old Navy, and Victoria’s Secret as well as fast fashion retailers H&M, Zara, and Primark, among 450 stores, specialty shops, and restaurants. Children’s activity retailer KidZania committed to take 80,000 square feet.
“It should become the preeminent tourist attraction, not just in New York, but in all of North America,” gushed Don Ghermezian, whose family controls Triple Five.
The family firm is also seeking approvals for American Dream Miami, which looks a lot like the Meadowlands project.
What Triple Five is doing is akin to what Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT) is implementing on a smaller scale at its regional malls in Pennsylvania. The company has put a Legoland Discovery Center and a 5 Wits maze-like survival game at Plymouth Meeting Mall in Montgomery County, and a Round 1, a bowling alley/karaoke/gaming attraction at Exton Square Mall in Chester County, to replace traditional department store anchors that have closed. Willow Grove Mall will soon get an interactive escape room that allows patrons to solve mysteries.
Integrating “social experiences for all ages is critical,” PREIT chief executive officer Joseph Coradino said last week. “Malls are moving towards becoming full-scale lifestyle destinations … that will extend consumer visits and drive sales.”
Coradino said nearly 19 percent of space in PREIT’s portfolio, including executed leases, is now committed to dining and entertainment, up 36 percent from five years ago.
American Dream was conceived more than a decade ago by the Mills Corp., which then called it Xanadu. Mills envisioned coupling a traditional mall with a Ferris wheel and an indoor ski hill. But the project was beset by appeals and lawsuits from environmentalists to rival developer Hartz Mountain, and Mills sold off its share in 2006 to Colony Capital.
Then Colony lost its funding during the recession and stopped work on the project in 2009. The two developers combined had sunk $2 billion into the unfinished project.
Triple Five took over Xanadu in 2011, but didn’t rename the mall American Dream until 2014. It would languish a few more years.