American Dream Megamall Set to Open with Soft Launch on Friday

Brenda Flanagan, NJTV News | October 22, 2019 | Planning
It started as Xanadu in 2003, has since been through several developers and has cost billions of dollars

After 17 years of bankruptcies and blown deadlines, the megamall that started as Xanadu will finally open as American Dream this week.

Friday’s soft launch of the sprawling complex in East Rutherford will see the debut of its Nickelodeon theme park, skating rink and the It’Sugar candy store, in a special three-day preview. Tickets for the theme park are already sold out, according to Triple Five, the developer.

After years of living in the shadow of the construction site, local residents said they are intrigued by the debut of the complex, which will ultimately combine the recreation attractions with hundreds of stores.

“I would like to go for the experience,” said Kerry Williams of Garfield. “I hear it’s going to be a lot of gigantic stuff over there — so I guess I’ll just try.”

Marta Palazzo of Clifton also thinks she’ll be stopping by. “I believe that I would — I would, in the sense like, taking my grandchildren to the mall.”

A visit won’t be cheap

The multi-generational excursion won’t be cheap. Tickets for Nickelodeon Universe range from $40 for kids under 48 inches tall to $50 for all-access. Kids under two get in free. The cost of parking is on a sliding scale — from $3 for 30 minutes, to $24 for stays of eight hours or more. So, a daylong outing for grandparents and a couple of grandkids could cost more than $200, and that’s before any treats.

Other entertainment venues, like the Big Snow ski slope, will open later. Forty-five percent of the megamall is devoted to retail shopping, anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys, but that’s not expected to fully open until next spring. And the stores will be closed on Sundays, under Bergen County’s “blue laws” that prohibit Sunday shopping.

Shoppers interviewed at the Garden State Plaza in Paramus — ranked the nation’s seventh most-valuable mall by CNBC — were mixed in their reaction to American Dream’s debut.

Amadou Ba said whether he would shop at American Dream depends on what value he finds there.

“I shop all over the malls. I go where the deals [are], and shop according to what I need. Hopefully, if they have something I need, I would go there,” the North Bergen resident said.

But Nick Cicco of Cliffside Park said traffic congestion is likely to be a deal breaker for him. “It’s inconvenient to get there, with all the traffic they may have. And it creates a problem to shop there,” he said.

Concerns about traffic

To some local officials, traffic is the dark cloud accompanying the opening of the complex. Triple Five says it hopes to attract 40 million people a year to American Dream, including international travelers visiting New York City.

NJ Transit is enhancing bus service to serve the site but will not be adding any regular service for the mall on its single-track Meadowlands rail spur, at least initially.

“If you go on Route 3 now, traffic is at a dead stop at 4 o’clock. Dead stop,” Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli said this summer. “Where you going to put the 40 million people that are going to come here every year? I don’t know how you’re going to do it.”

Since taking over the twice-bankrupted complex in 2011 and expanding its scope to 3 million square feet, Triple Five has missed a couple of opening dates, as it hammered together a creative financing package. Triple Five used its Mall of America in Minnesota as collateral, while New Jersey’s Economic Development Authority granted it a $390 million tax break — plus millions in other tax-exempt bonds.

Dollars and jobs

The complex is worth maybe a half-billion dollars to New Jersey — plus 16,000 jobs — according to NJ Spotlight’s John Reitmeyer.

“Taxpayers certainly have already invested a lot and have a stake in what happens at this location, whether it succeeds or doesn’t,” he said. “Because certainly, if it does well, that’s tax revenue that comes in. And if it doesn’t, then the taxpayers are stuck again, trying to figure out the best use for this site.”

Expect crowds and traffic jams this weekend and beyond. Even with a soft launch, American Dream will draw people curious to see what’s going on inside that behemoth they’ve been driving by all these years.

Where is it?

American Dream surrounds the now-shuttered Meadowlands arena at the Sports Complex, which is also the home to MetLife Stadium, where New York’s two NFL franchises play, and the Meadowlands racetrack, where simulcast horse-race betting and sports wagering takes place.

How do I get there?

The Sports Complex sits at the intersection of the western spur of the NJ Turnpike and Route 3. Triple Five says there are 33,000 parking spaces available at the site.

NJ Transit is adding bus service, including an hourly, direct run from the Port Authority terminal in midtown Manhattan ($9), and a bus running every 30 minutes from the Frank Lautenberg train station in Secaucus ($2.25). In addition, three existing bus lines have added stops at the site, chiefly to serve American Dream employees.

NJ Transit has a rail spur with a station at the Sports Complex, but it says that it will not be adding trains specifically for American Dream customers. Rather, it is looking to partner with a private entity for ideas on an innovative people mover, like a monorail or gondola, that would be built to serve the site.

Timeline of development

2003: The Mills Corporation announces it will build Xanadu, a megamall mixing retail and entertainment, at the Meadowland Sports Complex after being selected by the state Sports and Exposition Authority as the developer to remake the complex. The company, which for years had sought to build one of its signature destination malls at a wetlands tract just north of the sports complex, unveils plans for a 2.5-million-square-foot structure comprising retail and such features as a Ferris wheel, a ski slope, a concert venue, and a minor league baseball stadium. The company, which owns large malls around the country, says it will spend $1.3 billion on Xanadu.

2007: After Mills runs into financial troubles, it gives way to Colony Capital, the real-estate investment firm run by Thomas Barrack, a close friend of future President Donald Trump. The company picks up where Mills left off, making few if any changes to Mills’ plans, but it also runs into financial woes at the site. Construction stops again in 2007, with $2 billion spent.

2011: Gov. Chris Christie hands the keys to Triple Five, the owner of the Mall of America. Rebranding the complex as American Dream, the company significantly increases the planned footprint, adding indoor amusement and water parks, as well as a skating rink. Construction begins again in 2013, and continues in fits and starts over the next six years.

2019: Triple Five announces a staged opening of American Dream, beginning on Oct. 25, with the debut of the Nickelodeon Universe Theme Park and the ice-skating rink.

Who’s paying for it?

Financing for the American Dream project comes from a combination of private and public sources. In addition to a $1.67-billion private financing package, led by J.P. Morgan, Triple Five was allowed to issue $1.15 billion in tax-exempt bonds, backed by $350 million in state tax incentives and local tax incentives worth another $800 million. State officials say the complicated public financing package is backed solely by the revenues of the project, meaning that bondholders have no recourse against taxpayers if American Dream goes belly up. All told, including the money spent by the previous developers, the project has cost $5 billion.

What opens when?

Oct. 25 — The indoor Nickelodeon Universe Theme Park and an ice-skating rink debut on Friday.

Nov. 27 — DreamWorks Water Park, comprising 40 water slides and 15 attractions, including a 1.5-acre wave pool and a 142-foot-tall body slide opens to the public. The attractions are arranged around themes such as Madagascar’s Rain Forest, Shrek’s Swamp and the Kung Fu Panda Zone.

Dec. 5 — Big SNOW, American Dream’s indoor ski area, will be opening its slopes. Associated shopping will also open at that time.

March 2020 — 350 stores open at the site, ranging from Hermès, Dolce & Gabbana and Tiffany & Co. to H&M, Uniqlo and Primark. Also debuting at that time will be 100 restaurants and other dining destinations. Further attractions are planned, such as a Sea Life Aquarium, a Legoland Discovery Center, movie theaters and a 300-foot observation wheel.