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Swamp Dreams


As you might imagine, some people have difficulty understanding why New Jersey needs to compete with China in the shopping-mall category, or why a ­biospherelike amusement park is necessary, or why this particular project needs to be built right now, during what can generously be called a precarious retail environment.

“I don’t know which is worse—if it fails or if it succeeds,” says Jeff Tittel, the director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. “If it fails, New Jersey is going to be out of $350 million in taxpayer subsidies. And if it succeeds, it will be the worst traffic, and it will destroy shopping areas in cities and malls all over the state.” Even American Dream proponents acknowledge the traffic situation, though they predict that road improvements will accommodate the anticipated 150,000 additional cars. But Tittel, citing an average capacity of roughly 1,800 cars per hour per lane, thinks the project will be a Giants fan’s worst game-day-traffic nightmare. “I don’t think people understand the size and scope of it,” he says. “At the Port Authority, the bus will just sit there and never be able to leave the building.”

An equally pressing question is whether the mall will succeed on its own terms. Is it possible to build anything that can attract 55 million visitors a year? In New Jersey? Throughout the country, high-end malls have endured the recession surprisingly well, especially those with entertainment components. And as crazy as it may seem to shoppers in Cobble Hill or Nolita, retail experts say the region is facing a mall gap. “If you look at the Greater New York area,” says David Harris, an analyst with Gleacher & Company, “I know it’s hard to relate to for a lot of New Yorkers, but we are under-malled here.” It is true that older shopping centers are struggling throughout New Jersey, but the owners of the Nanuet Mall announced this spring that they would demolish it to build a fancier one in its stead.

On the other hand, maybe there’s a reason why the Xanadu–American Dream site has sat empty for so long. “If this project is viable, why hasn’t it been done over the years?” asks Deborah Howlett, the president of the New Jersey Policy Perspective. “Why does it take $350 million from the people of New Jersey?” She finds it particularly galling that the financing for the almost $4 billion megamall was arranged in a year when Christie slashed 5 percent of the school system’s annual funds. To make the deal, the government had to rewrite the Economic Redevelopment and Growth grant and the Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit Act. An affordable-housing element was scratched in negotiations, reducing the project to a giant version of a highway-side box store. “There will just be places for business,” Howlett says.

Still, even most of the development’s opponents appear resigned to the opinion that the Meadowlands’ future belongs to American Dream. Bill Sheehan, the executive director of Hackensack Riverkeeper, is a local environmentalist who has done much to help restore vast tracts of wetlands over the past decade. He took me on a tour of the place from the river, and as we boated past fields of lush spartina grasses teeming with osprey and egret, he, too, spoke of the megamall as if it were a fait accompli. “My feeling is, it has to be something because, No. 1, it’s there. It’s gotta open. The other reasons it’s gotta open—it’ll give the economy here a real kick in the ass. I just hope they figure out a way not to use so much power.”

The Meadowlands has always been a land of larger-than-life proposals, where failure mingles with success so frequently that sometimes the difference is debatable. Dreamers in the Meadowlands have seldom accomplished what they set out to do, but new ones keep arriving anyway, and the region is typically accommodating.

On a humid morning in East Rutherford, with mosquitoes patrolling the parking lot of the Sheraton Meadowlands Hotel and Conference Center, Paul Ghermezian is at the Starbucks inside, reminiscing about the family business. His family has always been willing to do anything to create a spectacle. He remembers the first time his uncles brought a submarine to the indoor lake at the West Edmonton Mall. “It was a real submarine—if you drop it in the ocean, it will work.”

Triple Five brought a submarine to Bloomington, Minnesota, too, when they were pitching the Mall of America to the local community. Now Paul sees the Mall of America concept imitated around the world. “You have a mall and you just put a country on the end of it,” he says disparagingly. “But none of these has conjured up the same level of success and cachet that we have.”


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