Two decades ago, when a gigantic mall of shops and amusements began to be conceived just outside New York, the iPhone did not exist, Amazon only sold books online and people went to the malls when they wanted to buy something.
Now, after endless marches and counter-marches and an investment of billions of dollars, the American Dream finally opened its doors and is the second largest mall in the country. It has 278,000 square meters (3 million square feet) with business premises and more than a dozen attractions, such as a 16-story ski slope and a water park. It will also have 450 businesses and restaurants.
The big question is: who will come?
People are now attached to their phones, from which they can buy things without leaving their home. Amazon has become the largest internet sales firm in the world. And traffic in shopping centers decreased 10% after the 1990s, according to an estimate from Coresight Research.
A Credit Suisse report published two years ago predicts that one in four shopping centers will have closed by 2022 as a result of online purchases and business closure. Since 2015, they have opened only nine new malls, compared to the 43 that opened in 1973, the year of greatest construction of shopping centers, according to the CoStar Group, a firm focused on the real estate business.
American Dream, however, intends to attract 45 to 50 million visitors in its first year.
Entertainment sites occupy more than half of its space, including attractions such as a corral with rabbits and an aviary. There will also be a place where they take care of dogs and a fancy wing, where visitors can drink champagne and eat caviar while they wait for their expensive designer wallets to wrap around them.
“You can have fun there if you live in Manhattan or in New Jersey,” said Ken Downing, an executive at Triple Five Group, the firm that manufactured the mall. “It’s like going on vacation.”
At its inauguration last Friday, which was admitted a few thousand visitors, it smelled of sawdust and drills were heard, a reminder that the mall is not yet finished. They have already opened only two of the great attractions: An ice skating rink and a Nickelodeon theme park, although not all of their games are working.
American Dream will work fully in the middle of next year. A ski slope and a water park will start operating in the coming months. Restaurants and businesses will open in March.
“This is the great attraction,” said Giovanni Scolaro, who lives in Elmwood Park, New Jersey, pointing towards the skating rink, but alluding to those attractions in general. “I have a seven year old son and grandchildren. This is very interesting”.
The Canadian conglomerate Triple-Five took over the project in 2011, after it was abandoned by two other companies. Work has been done on the project since the late 1990s, but the works began only in 2004.
An initial colorful exterior was mocked, to the point that then New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said it was “horrible … the ugliest building in New Jersey and perhaps the United States.” The exterior was finally changed.
The project was suspended in 2009, when a subsidiary of Lehmann Bros. could not obtain financing. Its creditors took over the project in 2010 and the following year Triple Five was incorporated, which rethought everything and decided to create an attraction for tourists and for the people of the area. He was inspired by two other shopping centers he created: The West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada, and the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, which are the two largest in North America. In both cases, the attractions they offer are fundamental.
The attractions occupy 20% of the space in the West Edmonton Mall and 30% in the Mall of America. The average in US shopping centers is 6%, according to CoStar.
The executive director of American Cream and President of Triple Five Don Ghermezian said that by taking over the project, he was aware of what was happening in the world and knew that the attractions were going to be important.
“Everyone talks about the future of stores and the future of entertainment sites, and how to merge the two things,” Ghermezian said in a talk with journalists. “But there is nowhere on the planet that has done something of the magnitude of what we are doing here.”
Ghermezian told the Associated Press that he expects American Dream to generate more sales than the West Edmonton Mall and the Mall of America, about $ 2 billion annually. But there are many skeptics who wonder if the mall will succeed, especially considering the proximity to New York, which is 15 kilometers (almost 10 miles).
“It’s going to cost them to generate interest when you’re so close to a much larger amusement park, Manhattan,” said Jason Goldberg, Publicis Communications executive.
Goldberg believes the mall can work if the amusement park convinces the people of New Jersey to get in the car and go there. But one of the questions is whether people will want to buy in Zara and Uniqlo in that complex, when there are many other shopping centers with the same businesses.
In addition, stores will not open on Sundays, where only restaurants and theme parks will be open, according to East Rutherford Mayor James Cassella.
Randy Correy is a reporter focusing on emerging markets. Before joining PGM, he worked as a freelance journalist in and around Boston, having been published by over 30 outlets including NPR, The Huffington Post, Salon, Truth out and VICE.com.