How the American Dream Mega-Mall Is Defying Retail Trends

American Dream has been nearly two decades in the making. This fall, the $5 billion project looks like it’s finally going to open its doors.

The East Rutherford, N.J. complex will feature 3 million square feet of retail, entertainment and dining space. Aside from mall mainstays like Zara, Lululemon, Gap and H&M, it will house a Nickelodeon Universe theme park (complete with three record-breaking roller coasters), an indoor ski slope and snowboard park (the first of its kind in North America), a giant Ferris wheel overlooking the New York skyline, a DreamWorks water park and an NHL-size ice rink.

Luxury tenants include Hermès, Saint Laurent and Saks Fifth Avenue, and the high-end portion of the mall will offer a separate entrance with valet parking. Food and beverage options include the first Kosher food hall and another curated by Munchies, Vice’s food and culture site. Future plans for the development include a hotel and convention center.

“You can think about it as throwing the kitchen sink at a real estate project,” Nick Egelanian, the founder and president of the retail real estate consulting firm SiteWorks, told FN. “Pretty much everything you can think of in every kind of mall that caters to discretionary spending.…Add it all up and that’s what American Dream is.”

In a sense, this kind of maximalist strategy makes sense for 2019: Study after study has found that consumers today want better entertainment and dining options at shopping centers, and malls around the country are throwing significant investment into adding experiential elements to bring back some of the foot traffic that’s been lost to e-commerce.

Yet it’s also a time when the prevailing narrative in modern retail is shifting toward less is more. While many retailers continue to shrink their store counts, close flagships and downsize existing locations, American Dream’s developers, Triple Five Group, are going about as big as you can get.

“I do think that when everyone’s going in one direction with trends — be it fashion, home, music, art — it’s always smart to turn around and go the opposite [way], and not do what everybody else is doing,” said Ken Downing, Triple Five’s chief creative officer and the former SVP and fashion director at Neiman Marcus.

American Dream, Downing said, “is revolutionizing retail in many ways because it’s not just about shopping, it’s not just about the stores….Beyond being a shopping center, we actually really see ourselves as being a community of inclusivity, diversity and very much like a neighborhood because of its size.”

The company is well versed in colossal hybrid retail-entertainment projects: Triple Five also owns two of North America’s largest shopping centers, the West Edmonton Mall and the Mall of America, both of which feature amusement parks and other attractions alongside stores and food courts. It took control of American Dream in 2011 after previous iterations of the mall, then called Xanadu, were stymied by bankruptcies, lawsuits and the financial crisis.

While the economy has rebounded in the intervening years, the retail climate remains uncertain, and a bet this big on brick-and-mortar is undoubtedly a major risk.

Egelanian meets monthly with a group of top industry executives, and said in a recent discussion about the project, “There was absolutely no consensus on whether this was going to be a smashing success or a horrible failure.”

On the one hand, he said, certain aspects of the project are proven success stories — including the water park and ski slope attractions. Still, some have questioned whether the New York City area needs another luxury fashion destination, given the proximity of American Dream to Manhattan and the nearby Mall at Short Hills.

Naveen Jaggi, president of retail advisory services at commercial real estate firm JJL, thinks the high-end stores will be a key draw for the mall, particularly for tourists visiting from Europe, Asia and the Middle East. “What I see this place becoming is a non-Fifth Avenue option for consumers to go and get a lot of shopping done,” he said. “Is this going to be the kind of place that people will go to weekly to go buy their stuff? Probably not. Is this the kind of place where people will go and spend a day and do a combination of shopping and eating and entertainment? Absolutely.”

Jaggi also said he isn’t concerned that the project will compete with The Shops at Hudson Yards, the major retail development that opened this spring in Manhattan just a short train ride away, featuring the city’s first Neiman Marcus, Dallas concept boutique Forty Five Ten and more.

“Hudson Yards is much more New York-oriented. To me it feels like American Dream is much more of a global tourist destination, and so luxury plays into that,” he said.

Downing said Triple Five expects about half of American Dream’s customer base to come from the New Jersey and New York City area, with the remaining half split between North American visitors (30%) and international tourists (20%). The space will also be highly adaptable — something traditional malls have struggled to accomplish: a 60-foot fountain can convert into a runway, the water park can become an event venue or concert hall and an atrium can turn into a weekend farmer’s market.

“There’s nothing too big or too small that we can’t accommodate within the volume of the property,” he said.

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