the future issue

In 2029, IRL Retail Will Live Only Inside Amusement Parks

Photo-Illustration: by Marcus Peabody; source images Getty

It was not so very many years ago that an artificial intelligence invaded American homes. Once engaged, it barked orders — provided you had supplied it with batteries (not included). “Attention, mall shoppers,” it told its helpless servants. “Sale at the shoe store! Sale at the fashion boutique! Clearance at the sunglass boutique!”

It was Mall Madness, Milton Bradley’s board-game diagnosis of a national fever. We had contracted mall madness. The nerve center of teenage life was the shopping mall, a meet-cute and merch paradise.

That was then. The interceding 30 years have not been kind to the shopping mall, strafed as it has been by online shopping on one side and discounters on the other. Recent years have seen a great mall die-off, and mall vacancy rates this year are at their highest since 2011.

And yet — here we are in 2019, zombie survivors of the “retail apocalypse” surveying the wreckage, and all over New York, here come the malls. The last few years have seen a bubbling up of megaproperties that combine retail, office space, residential space, and dining; and now, nothing less than the American Dream, which opened in October. We have finally achieved the American Dream, and it is a shopping and entertainment center in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

The 16-story indoor ski-and-snowboard park scheduled to open at American Dream. Photo: American Dream

The American Dream, as soon-to-be-realized, is a kind of apotheosis of a new model of mall shopping — it is, at the very least, the most expensive mall ever built in the U.S. (Current cost estimates put it at around $5.7 billion and counting.) Its CEO, Don Ghermezian, and the Canadian development group Triple Five, are making a bet that the shopping of the future won’t just happen online, with purchases delivered by drone, from the comfortable sanctuary of your hand computer. They think that IRL retail can continue, that even malls can rise again if they only get fun.

American Dream is full of it. The complex opened in October, not with any of its retail ready but with a $550 million Nickelodeon Universe Theme Park, with a PAW Patrol Adventure Bay, Dora’s (as in, the Explorer) Sky Railway, and two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles roller coasters. An American Dream ice rink, regulation size, will host NHL-team practices. Next up comes the DreamWorks Waterpark. The snow machines are already churning to supply the 16-story indoor ski slope, which will open later this fall. At American Dream, says Ken Downing, a 28-year veteran of Neiman Marcus who jumped ship to American Dream this spring, you can ski or get a tan under the glass atrium in the water park — 365 days a year.

How could this mall fall? A better question might be: How could it not? It is the realization of a project that has been in the works, under a different name and buoyed by different backers, for going on 20 years, gaining in cost as it goes: The bottom fell out of an earlier version, then called Xanadu, during the great crash of 2008–9. But Downing says he believes they’ve already spawned imitators, though they hardly need them — plans are already under way for centers like American Dream around the U.S., in Miami and, potentially, Vegas and California.

*This article appears in the November 11, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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In 2029, IRL Retail Will Live Only Inside Amusement Parks