Giant shopping mall could draw 40 million people a year, trigger traffic nightmare
After 16 years of false starts, the behemoth American Dream retail and amusement complex is set to open just west of Manhattan. To get there, an expected 40 million visitors a year must join the traffic-choked roads of northern New Jersey.
The project's owner, Triple Five Group, expects crowds to rival those at its Mall of America, where express buses, free shuttles and Minnesota's most-traveled light-rail route carry people to the busiest U.S. shopping destination. Unlike Minnesota, New Jersey has no plans to link the site by rail from its major airport. In fact, it has no plans for any new train service, only additional bus routes with extended hours and stops.
American Dream was built in New Jersey's Meadowlands, where some of the nation's most congested highways crisscross swamps, former landfills and commuter towns. In and around neighboring MetLife Stadium, home to the busiest National Football League playing schedule and a favorite concert stop for the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce, stand-still traffic and transit muck-ups are routine.
"At peak hours, I can see traffic being backed all the way up to the Lincoln Tunnel," Secaucus Mayor Mike Gonnelli, whose town hall is six miles from Times Square, predicted for American Dream. "I don't know how extra buses are going to be enough for 40 million people."
The complex's 3 million square feet are 45 percent retail and 55 percent entertainment, including what Triple Five calls the Western Hemisphere's biggest indoor theme park, North America's only indoor snow skiing and a DreamWorks water park. Among the tenants are Saks Fifth Avenue, Hermes, Century 21, a kosher food market and a 20-restaurant dining terrace.
While the opening coincides with a dire retail outlook -- fewer than half of U.S. malls are expected to survive ongoing store closings, according to Bloomberg Intelligence -- American Dream says it can beat the odds because of its attractions mix and accessibility to New York City, on pace to draw 67 million tourists this year.
Proposed in 2003 as a mega-mall called Xanadu, the project's ownership changes and financial hard times left it unfinished. Its indoor ski slope became a forlorn landmark for New Jersey Turnpike motorists; its garish multicolored exterior in 2011 was called "the ugliest damn building in New Jersey, and possibly America" by then-Gov. Chris Christie.
Edmonton, Canada-based Triple Five Group took ownership in 2011, ultimately securing $1.7 billion in construction loans from JPMorgan Chase, $1.1 billion in tax-exempt municipal bonds, $500 million from the developer and tenant payments. The state Economic Development Authority in 2015 approved $390 million in tax breaks.
As the Oct. 25 opening approaches, traffic skepticism has taken root even among some who had cheered the state incentives.
"The problem is going to be it's so congested that you can't get there," said Senate President Steve Sweeney, a South Jersey Democrat.
Plans call for three helipads at the mall. For those taking more common transportation, American Dream says not to worry.
"We are working closely with New Jersey Transit and NY Waterway to provide guests with convenient, easy ways to reach American Dream from New York and the surrounding area," Dana McHugh, an American Dream spokeswoman, said in an email. A ride-share hub and 30,000 parking spaces will be on site, she said.
New Jersey Transit, the nation's largest statewide mass-transportation provider, is adding daily express service every 30 minutes from the Midtown Manhattan Port Authority Bus Terminal, where homeless people, panhandlers and harried commuters jostle amid stench-permeated hallways. A replacement for the depot, operating beyond capacity for more than 50 years, won't open until at least 2030.
Janna Chernetz, New Jersey policy director for the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said buses may not be the best fit for visitors weighed down by purchases and post-water park clothes.
"What is the draw for people to use mass transit for American Dream?" Chernetz said. "I'm still trying to get public transportation to work for the people who live in that area."
Other American Dream buses will run locally, and between East Rutherford and the Secaucus train station, one stop from Manhattan. Special-events crowds there, though, have a tendency to overwhelm platforms. In an email, Jim Smith, an NJ Transit spokesman, said the agency will "ensure that demand is properly met with commensurate service."
NJ Transit has no plan to build any sort of link from Newark Liberty International Airport, about 10 miles from American Dream. Trains won't service American Dream until the system "is resilient enough that doing so won't adversely affect New Jersey commuters," Nancy Snyder, an agency spokeswoman, said by email.
NJ Transit also is studying an elevated train, like the $4.9 billion system under construction at the Los Angeles airport, "to provide seamless public transit" between Secaucus and the Meadowlands, Stephen Schapiro, a state transportation department spokesman, said in an email. "Specific cost and route are to be determined."
New Jersey's railroad doesn't have an estimated $1 billion to build a crucial loop so trains between Secaucus and the complex could run in both directions simultaneously. This year, WrestleMania fans threatened to riot when rail ran hours behind, and Rolling Stones concertgoers were warned about two-hour train waits.
Even the "first mass-transit Super Bowl," in 2014, flopped when buses and trains were ill-prepared to handle football's most-hyped game. With the mall set to open in the thick of the season, the Giants have worked with American Dream and the state "to best address traffic and parking in the sports complex," according to team spokesman Pat Hanlon.
"Our first concern is our fans and their ability to enter and leave the sports complex on game days," Hanlon said in an email.
Another football league, the XFL, says its New York Guardians will play eight games at MetLife's 82,500-seat stadium when contests start in 2020.
Northeastern New Jersey is one of the most densely populated regions in the nation. The state has the nation's worst urban traffic and road conditions, according to an August report by the Reason Foundation, a research group that advocates free markets.
In the Meadowlands region, upgrades to the Turnpike, Routes 3 and 120 and local roads have done little to alleviate congestion, said Jeff Tittel, New Jersey chapter director of the Sierra Club, the Oakland, Calif.-based environmental group.
"This is an area with some of the worst air quality anywhere in the country especially because of trucks, buses and automobiles," Tittel said. Even without Meadowlands events underway, some streets see in excess of 100,000 automobiles a day, state data show.
Tittel, using Californians' term of doom for tie-ups during freeway construction shutdowns, said the roads can't handle more.
"It's going to be Carmageddon," he said.
- - -
Bloomberg's Martin Z. Braun contributed.