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Swamp Dreams

In the heart of the Meadowlands, rising from a marsh steeped in centuries of botched schemes, is what promises to be the largest mall in the world. But mall doesn’t describe the half of it.

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The water-park element of the development, currently under construction, is modeled after Hawaii.
Rendering courtesy of Triple Five Worldwide

Out on the edge of the Meadowlands, where the Hackensack River begins a grand and gentle sweep west, a ruin rises from the fields of mosquito-­patrolled phragmites and mostly empty parking lots. It sits between the New Jersey Turnpike’s vast superhighway and the older roads that serve paintball parks and low-slung manufacturers: a ­giant edifice that resembles a ship washed ashore. Or perhaps it was sent here from space, by a race of creatures who mistook Carlstadt, New Jersey, for a ­regional capital and crashed on landing beside Moonachie Creek.

Then again, to call it a ruin is misleading. To say that this empty giant indoor shopping center—larger than the malls at nearby Paramus, Short Hills, Woodbridge, and Wayne combined—is some kind of after suggests there was a before, a time when people ate at Cheesecake Factories or tried on Ray-Bans at Sunglass Huts. This is not the case.

For this ruin has never been ruined, or might be considered pre-ruined, given that it has only ever been a plan, or a series of plans. What is currently half-built is the product of the last plan, hatched in the Bush era, that, even before the economic downturn killed it, was loudly and universally derided—Governor Chris Christie called it, boldly, the “ugliest damn building in New Jersey and maybe America.” But after almost a decade of talks and schemes, of construction starts and stops in which the stalled mall passed from one developer to another (and the parking lot started to sink into the swamp), construction has begun again. The mall is now in the hands of Triple Five, the Alberta-based developer of some of the largest malls in North America. The company was hand-picked by Christie, who has praised its owners for “their commitment and vision.” This is a considerable understatement.

If you disregard military bases and airports, and maybe the dam the Chinese government is beginning to regret it built on the Yangtze, the mall currently under construction at the Meadowlands will be one of the biggest feats of construction in history: the world’s largest commercial space, with at least six zeros attached to all the calculations. There is to be an astonishing 7.5 million square feet of retail space. Every year, the mall’s developers expect 55 million people—almost the population of Italy—to show up for, say, breakfast and some jeans and maybe a luxury item, as well as a show or a ­fighter-jet flight simulation or a grande decaf latte beneath a TV screen that will make Times Square seem like a rec room from the seventies. There will be the first indoor ski slope in North America: 800 feet long, sixteen stories high, with fresh snow made daily. There will be a skating rink the size of a small lake. And in the water-themed part of the structure, there will be a gigantic room modeled after Hawaii, with a tropical climate, a pool featuring six-foot waves, and possibly some kind of whale or unusual fish, explained to shoppers by sea-life educators.

If things go according to plan—a Yangtze dam–size if—the first stage of the complex will be completed in 2014, in time for the Super Bowl, which will be held that year across the parking lot. It is to be called ­American Dream at Meadowlands.

“I will probably be going to Hawaii with the girls,” Governor Christie is saying, imagining a family outing to the Meadowlands. He’ll be heading to the faux tropics, while his wife and sons will be skiing on the faux mountain next door.

Christie is standing on an incomplete balcony of questionable safety, in the unfinished sports court of American Dream, speaking to a crowd of regional journalists who have arrived one morning this spring to tour the mall under construction. New Jersey has offered Triple Five up to $350 million in state subsidies, making American Dream one of the few ­government-supported endeavors Christie hasn’t enjoyed saying no to. In fact, the governor is noticeably revved up, taken by the mall’s bigness, and charmed by its developers, whose enthusiasm roughly approximates the scale of the project itself.

Triple Five is run by the Ghermezians, an Orthodox Jewish family of four brothers and their nephews from Edmonton, Alberta. Nader Ghermezian, the company’s chairman, is standing next to Christie, playing Teller to Christie’s Penn. He has spent a career promising absurdist marvels, cutting ribbons on indoor lakes. “Today, we are proud to announce that we will be developing the world’s largest and most comprehensive retail, entertainment, amusement, recreation, and tourism project ever built,” he declares.

Numbers fly from Ghermezian like French fries out of a Burger King. “We will create 30,000 permanent jobs,” he says, citing an “economic benefit” of $3.8 billion that will be injected in the area’s economy. He points out that 25 million people live within driving distance, and begins to paint a picture of Newark Airport as less a gateway to the Greater New York area and more like a pipeline to American Dream at Meadowlands. (There are plans for Newark baggage check-in at the mall, and chartered flights destined specifically for American Dream.) “We are going to bring them in from far away,” he says. “From Europe, from South America, from all over the world!”


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