How Did the American Dream Mall Turn Into a Nightmare?

The New Jersey behemoth, billions of dollars over budget, is the only large suburban mall being developed anywhere in the country.

American Dream Mall: Whose Dream Is It?

Rising from the reclaimed swamps of New Jersey is the highest-grossing shopping center in the world.

That’s the dream, anyway, for American Dream Meadowlands: some 2.5 million square feet of retail and entertainment space featuring an aquarium, an amusement park, a wave pool, a baseball stadium, a ski slope, and a skydiving facility, drawing 40 million visitors a year, and creating thousands of jobs.

First it will need to open, and then it will need people, many of whom are quite comfortable shopping, if not skydiving, on their laptops and phones. As malls are torn down across the U.S., American Dream is the only large suburban mall being developed anywhere in the country.

The American part comes from … Canada, where the Ghermezian family, real estate developers worth at least $2.5 billion and the creators of the massive Mall of America, are racing to break the curse of the Meadowlands mall. The project, touted by a previous developer as a $2 billion boon to New Jersey’s economy, instead sucked up $2 billion and twice collapsed under the weight of its own grandeur.

“How do you like walking to Hawaii?” Nader Ghermezian teased. “You wonder what I’m talking about. An indoor glassed-in water park with six-foot waves” and “85-degree temperature 365 days of the year.”

Sounds nice. But drive by the Ghermezians’ hulking vision and you have to wonder about the future of malls, how far New Jersey will go to bring this one to life, and who’s making money on it.

Those are the questions we explore this week in a special series by Bloomberg Businessweek’s Susan Berfield, WNYC’s Ilya Marritz, and NJ Spotlight’s John Reitmeyer.

East Rutherford, N.J., Mayor James Cassella recalls a party promoting the mall in the early days. “It had everything—oysters, shrimp, one room for martinis. Just for the martinis,” he says. Then there was the ski slope. “Guy came flying down on us, and he looked like he was coming right at the table.”

Back then, it had a different developer and went by a different name.

"There’s a world of opportunity called Meadowlands Xanadu," the promotional video promised, "where mind and body overcome life’s daily stresses, where the great outdoors comes inside to play."

Or, as Governor Chris Christie once called it, “by far the ugliest damn building in New Jersey. Maybe in America.”

Then Christie plunged in, with taxpayer dollars, to salvage the project, once budgeted at $1.3 billion. If the mall opens in 2018, as the Ghermezians now say, it will have taken 15 years and $5 billion.

Surveying the giant footprint, Mayor Cassella tries to explain how those taxpayers feel about it all.

“I think they’re kind of like, what is the term used, meh?” he says. “It’s here. If it opens, fine. If it doesn’t, so be it.”

(Updates to clarify that it was a previous developer that touted the project as a $2 billion boon to New Jersey’s economy.)

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