There’s not a lot of places in the worlds where you can find skiing, a waterpark, and new Sketchers under one roof. If this combination excites you, you’re probably familiar with the American Dream mall in New Jersey. While there’s certainly a lot to do inside this mall, its early life has been marred with complications and setbacks.
In a world where e-commerce is replacing brick and mortar stores, the American Dream seeks to reinvent the idea of a shopping mall. The aptly named complex was designed with the idea that malls could offer more than retail experiences. Eventually, this project would end up in the hands of the Triple Five Group, the same company known for operating the Mall of America. While ambitious, the project ended up following a blueprint that has already established a footprint on the American retail landscape.
The idea was born over 20 years ago, spent over fifteen years in construction, and dealt with a pandemic in its first few months of operation. In fact, it has never even been fully opened because only some sections were ready for business in 2019. The American Dream Mall seems to be caught in a series of disasters and was dated the day it opened. Perhaps most damning of all, the building was called ugly by Chris Christie.
With the world opening up and people itching to get out of their houses, is the American Dream the answer? The public has never been able to experience the full Dream, but everything they’ve built over the past two decades is already in jeopardy.
The Nightmare and the American Dream
There’s probably no construction project that hasn’t had its share of complications. The American Dream is no exception. If anything, it had an exceptionally high number of problems. The project began as an idea in 1996 of an entertainment, amusement, and shopping conglomerate. The project was originally named Meadowlands under the ownership of a company named Mills Corp. They didn’t break ground until 2001. The complex was going to be built on wetlands: an idea that was heavily criticized and protested. Fortunately, it was moved to a new home on already developed lane in East Rutherford, NJ.
In 2002 the project was renamed to Xanadu and in 2006 Mills Corp. was acquired by Colony Capital Acquisitions. Progress slowed in 2008 due to economic struggles, and spectators were left with an unsightly project resembling a Lego building.
Perhaps the most promising change came in 2011 when the Triple Five Group acquired the project and named it The American Dream. Triple Five Group is the parent company to The Mall of America. At least they have experience building mega malls and will have the knowledge to get business running. However, doors wouldn’t open until the end of the decade. In 2018 the American Dream was set to open in Spring of 2019. That date would get pushed back to Fall 2019, and some attractions were slated for opening in early 2020.
Then, the pandemic struck. The opening was delayed further, attractions were closed, and some stores needed to pull out of the project. By May of 2021, some attractions are yet to have their initial opening. Legoland Discovery and the Sea Life Aquarium have been pushed to a Summer 2021 opening.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that e-commerce continues to rise in popularity. While the retail economy may have seen potential in a mega mall in the late 90’s, that potential has diminished while the American Dream was under construction. Regardless of the pandemic, shopping malls had been feeling competition from online retailers.
Will We Ever Live the Dream?
There are many factors working against the American Dream, but the building is built. Money is invested, attractions are operating, and shelves are stocked. Looking to the future, it seems the mall has a lot of work ahead. Even though there are many unexpected hurdles, there might be some opportunities to find success.
Priorities shifted before the public really got to experience the American Dream. Originally, the mall was supposed to be a near 50/50 split between entertainment and retail. Now, there will be about 70% of the focus placed on entertainment. If you’re looking for indoor fun, The American Dream has a lot to offer. There’s a Nickelodeon-influenced theme park and a Dreamworks-themed water park. It also houses the only real indoor snow-park and with an NHL-size ice rink. While these are impressive, the project once envisioned bigger attractions like a minor league baseball stadium and Formula One race track in the complex. Likely, the Triple Five Group wanted to stick closer to their Mall of America blueprint.
Canceling an entertainment attraction likely allowed a different attraction to open. Meanwhile, retail stores are closing without options for replacement. Anchor stores like Lord & Taylor and Barneys New York needed to abandon their American Dream plans. Smaller mall staples like Forever 21 and GNC are also missing. This is not a result of personal issues with the never-ending project. Rather, it is a reflection of the changing retail landscape. These companies are closing stores across the nation due to declining sales and the costs of operation.
The American Dream will still serve has a home for retail establishments that are still finding success. One example is the fast-fashion store Primark whose flagship store in New Jersey has shown a promising start. Customers can also find trendy styles such as athleisure brand Lululemon and newcomer Rhone. These unique offerings may make a trip more compelling than the brands that have become synonymous with the dated mall experience.
At the turn of the millennium, retail was a compelling reason to build a new project. In the 2020s, there’s an abundance of vacant retail space. If you’re going to have a successful mall there needs to be more than just stores. This is where the American Dream may find its footing.
Will the Dream Come to Life?
The future of American retail looks bleak, and malls are projected to shrink by nearly 33% in the next few years. Reportedly, the Triple Five Group has defaulted on its loan for the American Dream mall and loans for other retail giants like the Mall of America. The pandemic has reduced income, and tenants are not paying rent because they can’t attract business.
Hopefully, there’s a return to normalcy in sight. Ignoring the pandemic, if at all possible, we’re left to analyze the intent behind the American Dream’s inception. The mall was intended to cater to the crowds of people in New York City and in the northeast. Shopping in New York will give customers a different experience than shopping in the American Dream. Shoppers will have more options at different price points. The mall is under ten miles from NYC, so it won’t be too big of a challenge to get from the city to the American Dream.
In the New York area, it can be hard for people to experience activities that are more accessible in other parts of the country. Plus, cold winters make it challenging to enjoy theme parks and water parks year round: destinations that are typically outdoors. For the crowds of people who want to ski but can’t get to the mountains, indoor skiing is a decent solution. Similarly, theme parks with beloved childhood character can draw attention from a younger crowd at any point during the year.
The state of retail is going to force the Triple Five Group to view the American Dream from the opposite angle as the Mall of America. When the Mall of America opened in 1992, malls were thriving and retail was all conducted in physical stores. The entertainment was the secondary aspect of the complex, though it did draw some crowds. For the most part, retail takes the back seat at the American Dream. Entertainment has become the bigger focus, and brick and mortar stores are closing rapidly. If the American Dream wants to live up to its name, it will need to leverage nontraditional marketing tactics to get people in the door and spending money.
From the sounds of it, everything at the American Dream seems like a compromise. You can go shopping, but it’s not Times Square. You can ski, but it’s a manmade mountain. There’s a theme park, but it’s not Universal. This makes the entertainment seem less exciting than the bigger alternatives. However, they might be the best options for customers who don’t want to deal with weather or travel.
Can the American Dream Survive?
Being honest, it seems the American Dream mall is going to have a difficult time becoming profitable. The Triple Five Group is having trouble with the Mall of America, an established and recognized American attraction. January of 2020 was not a time when a new mega mall would flourish in the American economy. This is prior to the pandemic, and setbacks from 2020’s shutdowns would make the American Dream’s first year exponentially worse.
The complications experienced during construction should have been a sign to reevaluate this project, especially when it was impacted by the economic downturn in 2008. It took eighteen years between breaking ground and opening the doors. For reference, this only took three years for the Mall of America.
There is a chance that the worst is behind us. While the mall hasn’t even fully opened, it does have major attractions opened to the public. With restrictions easing, profits may turn green. This change could also encourage people to get out of the house. For people in the New York and New Jersey areas, The American Dream might be the change of pace they’re seeking.
The American Dream might be what the future of the American mall looks like: one part shopping and one part entertainment. More likely, the complex struggled too much to truly flourish. Years of setbacks diminished public interest and allowed retail trends to kill any need for a new mall. The pandemic hurt the American Dream, but it won’t be the thing that will kill it. That honor will go to the shift onto e-commerce. If anything, the American Dream will show other malls what to do with empty retail space.