Swamp Dreams

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!”

But Ghermezian also imagines that ­American Dream will end up being a time-saver for New Yorkers. “How would you like to go skiing in the middle of summer?” he asks. “Come here instead of going to Aspen!” When American Dream opens, he expects it will be that much harder to justify leaving the New York area at all. “You don’t have to go anywhere—Rome, Paris, Milan—for shopping. We will have them all here in the Meadowlands in New Jersey.”

Ghermezian is channeling something—a little Robert Moses, a little Norman Bel Geddes designing Futurama for the 1939 World’s Fair. He is not bashful, and he betrays no doubt that his dream will be realized. “So let’s work together, let’s be positive,” he says, and then adds, with steely confidence: “We will have a water park in here.”

Before it was a mall, or even a sports stadium, the Meadowlands was a place where people planned and plotted, where they dreamed of big things and sometimes even realized them, though mostly not. In 1824, Diedrich Knickerbocker, Washington Irving’s Dutch pseudonym, saw the meadows as nothing but emptiness, marked by Snake Hill, the extant rise that, before the pre-ruins of American Dream, was the biggest thing on the horizon: “It appears proudly overshadowing a gentle river, which rolls gracefully by its side, and stands like a giant amidst the desert, frowning upon the monotonous landscape around.”

Even during Irving’s time, however, there were developers who believed the swampy, mosquito-infested “wasteland” could be converted into the most productive farmland the world had ever seen. Just after the War of 1812, General Robert Swartwout bought land and diked it, planning grasses and a giant dairy farm to supply the growing populace of New York. “How can the success of such a work be denied when the most invincible proofs are before us?” Swartwout asked, just before his success was denied, the dikes breaking, the farmland sinking, the site eventually becoming an insane asylum. After the Civil War, Samuel Pike, a New York real-estate developer and distiller, founded the Iron Dike and Land Reclamation Company, also with an eye toward farmland creation. His special iron dikes avoided the erosion of the previous projects, though it is said that corn stalks that grew on the reclaimed land produced no corn. Pike sold his land to the railroads. “The enterprise of bringing it into cultivation bids fair to be a success,” the Times reported of the next giant land-reclamation scheme, before it, too, failed. In 1896, Cornelius C. Vermeule proposed developing the Meadowlands into an industrial city. This plan never got off the ground, either.

In the mid-1900s, a sea-plane base is said to have prospered for a time, and people are thought to have camped in the Meadowlands for the 1939 World’s Fair. But the area was mostly abandoned and the farms were slowly reclaimed, piecemeal, by illegal dumping and the tides. Swarms of mosquitoes—dark clouds of aedes sollicitans, their stingers geared for blood—were frequently said to fly from the marshes to Newark, and were even blamed for infestations in New York. In the fifties, sand drains allowed engineers to build on swamps that had previously proved impervious to development: thus the New Jersey Turnpike, which led to the stadium and racetrack, which led to more plans to do something with the land adjacent, which brings us to American Dream.

The land in question is owned by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. It was first planned to be developed by Kajima International, a Japanese company that in 1996 proposed a retail-entertainment “pleasure dome.” By 2002, the project had gotten nowhere, and soon control over the land was granted to the Mills Corporation, a maker of giant malls named after mills (Franklin Mills in Philadelphia, St. Louis Mills in St. Louis, etc.). It was the not-so-halcyon days of the James McGreevey governorship, when shopping seemed as if it would never stop, when malls were the rage. Mills, adopting the pleasure-dome idea, approached the $1.3 billion project with gusto. It called the development Meadowlands Xanadu.

But like many of its forebears, the Mills Corporation’s plan went down the tubes. The company got so far as to build a shell and even an indoor ski slope before skirting bankruptcy in 2007. The Sports and Exposition Authority was stuck with a half-building. Enter Colony Capital, a L.A.-based investment firm with an international background in casinos and hotels. “We are pleased to have the complex negotiations of the last few months behind us and are extremely excited about the project’s momentum,” Colony stated in 2006, immediately before it lost momentum. By 2009, the Xanadu site was a metaphor for the bad-deal rich economy: swampland and every­thing sinking.

Stephen Ross’s Related Companies flirted with the project next, in 2010. Ross’s team proposed changing the name from Xanadu to Meadowlands, and came up with a logo centered on the letter M. “The Meadow­lands will usher in a new era and a bold redefinition of what a retail destination can be,” read a Related brochure obtained by the Bergen Record. The ski slope, né Snow Dome during the Xanadu days, was renamed ­SnowPark. A 286-foot Pepsi Globe (or Ferris wheel) was also retained. But Ross’s Meadowlands Plan stalled, and Cabela’s, the outdoor store that was to be an anchor tenant, began threatening to opt out.

This is more or less where Christie stepped in. Some observers expected him to compare the development to other unwieldy projects, like the federally financed regional train tunnel he had recently squashed, and simply declare the mall dead. But he chose to double down, to go bigger and better, to show himself as an executive who gets big business moving. He met the Ghermezians at a Giants game and was reportedly impressed by their track record. Triple Five is the developer of the Mall of America (4.25 million square feet) in Minnesota, as well as the West Edmonton Mall (5.3 million square feet) in Canada, which reigned briefly as the Guinness Book of World Records’ largest mall before the opening of Beijing’s Golden Resources Mall (6 million square feet). With ­American Dream, Triple Five is looking to take back the No. 1 spot.

“Okay, so this is the ski slope,” Paul ­Ghermezian says, standing in an empty concrete room with a big hill in the ­middle of it. “It’s essentially a large refrigerator.”

Paul, Nader Ghermezian’s nephew, is in charge of the tour. He is tall and charming, relaxed and meticulous; he has inherited his uncle’s pitchman genes. “I grew up in the Rockies, so this is awesome,” he says. “You have to imagine the half-pipe. I already skied the equivalent of this. It’s in Madrid, and it’s a good time.”

He stays upbeat, enthusiastic. “It’s a great climate-controlled environment, so it’s not too cold,” he says. “And it’s real snow. This is something to really understand. It’s real snow!”

“You have toimagine thehalf-pipe. I already skied the equivalent of this in Madrid, and it’s a good time.”

Next stop, a mall-size sports bar, with a proposed TV set that Paul is bubbling over. “Our vision here is this wall, it’s going to be outfitted with the most amazing high-definition screen you’ve ever seen!” And then: “I told the management that I wanted a second one for my house,” he says, winking at the cameras.

Paul’s tour necessitates a lot of imagining, some of it fairly difficult (indoor skydiving, for instance). At the moment, walking around American Dream feels like entering a Battlestar Galactica episode in which a team boards an evacuated space station with a possible alien presence lurking. Workers’ lunch trash is scattered around rooms next to fancy terrazzo tiling; boxes of Kohler toilet fixtures are stranded near sheets of wallboard and rolls of insulation. If you didn’t know, you might not be able to tell whether the theater was on its way up or down. “This will be very similar to what was the Nokia Theater in Times Square,” we’re assured.

Toward the end of the tour, Paul finally gets the question he is looking for—why the name American Dream?

“Obviously, it’s a very vetted thing,” he says. After asking reporters for their theories, he says the name comes down from his uncles, who, after immigrating from Iran in the late fifties, believe they have lived the American Dream, albeit via Canada. “In all instances, they achieved it,” he says. “And they want to share that.

“We want people to live the American Dream, and what I mean by that is they have a great time,” he goes on. “There’s no feeling like it. And the tourists who come here are going to say, ‘This is America!’ ”

By this point we have ascended the mall’s roof, which looks out over the reeds and the parking lots and the disused radio towers across the muddied Hackensack River, beyond Secaucus, to the view of midtown Manhattan, creeping over the hills of Union City. Paul points to the city skyline, then unveils a revolutionary rethinking of the view, an American Dream in reverse. “When you look out at Manhattan, all our eyeballs are on them,” he says. “But when they look out, they’re going to see us. They’re going to say, ‘Wow, what’s going on out there?’—and they’re going to make that trip.” He waxes enthusiastic about the Jersey-centered panorama. “These investment bankers working late hours, looking out on the Meadowlands, they’re going to long to go to New Jersey,” he says. “You’re going to see children tugging at their parents—this is where we want to go!

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.”

The Meadowlands project is especially significant to Paul. His uncles bid on the project a decade ago, before it became Xanadu, so this is their second time at bat. He acknowledges that there will be some difficulties. Parking may not be free, and thanks to Bergen County blue laws, a portion of the mall will not be allowed to sell clothes on Sundays. But he faithfully sticks to the vision his family has put together, and he works it hard. “This is going to be more grand than Vegas,” he declares. “It’s going to be more classy.

“The rest of the world—especially those emerging markets—have built really great facilities,” he continues, “and when you come back to the U.S. you see some of these places have not kept up.” His BlackBerry is filled with photos from shopping experiences around the world: a chandelier in a new Vegas store, benches in Mexico. He has been to the Golden Resources Mall in Beijing, and came away unimpressed. “It is basically a stacked retail experience, without any jazz.”

As we are finishing our conversation, mosquitoes begin to make their way into the Sheraton, and then deep into the Starbucks. One lands nearby, but Paul Ghermezian is not concerned. “Mosquitoes don’t like my blood,” he says. Then, looking at his watch, he gets up to drive through the maze of service roads for a meeting at his trailer on the edge of Moonachie Creek.

A Skating Rink The size of a small lake. Photographs by Kevin Cooley/Redux. Renderings courtesy of Triple Five Worldwide.

A Sixteen-Story Ski Slope With fresh snow every day of the year.

A Sports Center Where a 28-foot screen will broadcast the game across the parking lot.

Swamp Dreams