Talk about tilting at windmills…in the midst of the biggest challenge physical store retailing has ever faced, someone has built the largest shopping and entertainment complex in the country in the wilds of New Jersey. The Man of LaMancha had it easy compared to the Men of Ghermezian.
The Ghermezian family is the developer and evangelist for American Dream, the three-million-plus-plus-square-feet complex in the Jersey Meadowlands that had its partial opening in October and is scheduled to go full-tilt-retail-boogie this March. With space for 450 stores and restaurants and 15 so-called “entertainment” areas, it will rival Minneapolis’ Mall of America and Canada’s West Edmonton Mall…both not coincidently built by these same Ghermezians.
But while those two complexes were built from scratch and have been relatively successful, American Dream has had a long and complicated pedigree. Originally conceived in the early 2000s, it has sent two earlier developers into bankruptcy, absorbed billions and billions of dollars of private equity and public monies and has been an eyesore off the New Jersey Turnpike for the better part of a generation…no easy feat considering what the Turnpike looks like these days. When American Dream finally opened its doors in late October – barely beating a self-imposed deadline to do so before the end of the decade – it did so in a limited way…very limited.
A recent walkthrough on a quiet Saturday morning showed, yes, the biggest attraction in the place – the Nickelodeon indoor amusement park – was open for business, as was the most obvious physical space in the complex, the Big Snow ski and snowboard slope, also indoors. An enclosed ice skating rink was operational too, but that was about it.
The retail component of American Dream was represented by a grand total of one store, It’Sugar, a two-level candy emporium guaranteed to add calories just by walking by it. The other 449 retail and hospitality spaces were behind “coming soon” billboarded store fronts, walled off escalators and blocked off corridors.
The list of who’s going to be there come March is still somewhat sketchy. The only classic “anchor” store is Saks Fifth Avenue, which has its signage up on the outside of American Dream but appeared to be in another zip code according to the digital floor plans scattered throughout the place. “The Collection” of luxury retailers is expected to include Hermes and Tiffany among others is somewhere off in the distance. So too were the more mass-market retailers like H&M, Primark and their brethren.
Other amusement and experiential areas, like the DreamWorks water park and Angry Birds mini golf were clearly in process but still walled off. They had been billed as being part of the soft opening but apparently didn’t make it.
The Inside Story
Several things hit you immediately upon entering American Dream. It looks better than perhaps you thought given that the formerly garish exterior has been painted a gleaming white. (How long it will remain gleaming is questionable given New Jersey’s infamous pollution.)
Inside it is also clean and modern looking, no doubt at least partially a function of few shoppers and even fewer store signs or display windows. Once they arrive it will certainly feel different.
What won’t change, however, is the sheer scale and enormity of the place. With three levels, the atria soar and have wide vistas. But check one of the digital floor plans to get your bearings and you realize no matter how much you’ve walked you’ve barely penetrated the shopping sanctum. With so much empty space and vacancies on the shopping landscape these days it is very difficult to believe they will fill this place up. Even Gap and H&M can’t take six or stores each.
And then there are the amusement areas. The three big ones apparent so far – Nickelodeon, DreamWorks Water Park and Big Snow are on the perimeters of American Dream rather than in the middle as the amusement area is in Mall of America. And they are not for the faint-wallet-hearted: Nickelodeon could easily run $250 for the afternoon for a family of four – and that’s before lunch, souvenirs and whatever else will ultimately be tacked on to the base rate (Parking? Upcharges to cut the lines? A SpongeBob meet-and-greet?) These are not quite Disney prices…but then again this is not quite Disneyland either.
Judging American Dream at this stage is really not fair as the true test will come when the stores open in the spring and the (hoped-for) crowds begin to come to check out the place. (They will of course do so only six days a week when it comes to shopping as the complex is located in Blue Lawed Bergen County.)
The developers say American Dream will not be like a regional mall where people come to do some shopping – or just get out of the house. They envision 40 million people a year visiting with buses, helicopters and even a tram bringing them from Manhattan, just seven miles away. Of course as Manhattan has one or two of its own attractions it remains to be seen how many locals and tourists alike will descend upon the Meadowlands for a day of “experiences.”
American Dream will take some time to find its place on the retail and entertainment landscape. Cynics will decry it as anachronistic, a relic from another era. Champions will tout it as the future of the industry.
But for the Men of Ghermezian, “This is their quest, to follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far…”
Warren Shoulberg broke out in a bit of a sweat when he went to American Dream and there was nothing to buy…other than candy bars.