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Editor’s Take: Long Live the Mall Rat

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The American Dream is alive and kicking in East Rutherford, N.J.

On Friday the retail, entertainment and dining complex developed by Ghermezian family-owned Triple Five Group celebrated the grand opening of The Avenue, a 300,000-square-foot upscale retail wing anchored by the only Saks Fifth Avenue in New Jersey, a 110,000-square-foot, two-level store offering luxury bells and whistles like private dressing suites, a blow-dry bar, same-day delivery, valet services and more.

Described as an immersive shopping experience with two-story storefronts designed to resemble a townhome, American Dream’s The Avenue places labels like Hermès, Johnny Was, Mulberry and Dolce & Gabbana alongside whimsical pink-and-white sitting salons and sculpture gardens designed by New Jersey native Jonathan Adler.

Adler, as well as Alexander Wang, Anne Fontaine, Gentle Monster, Zadig & Voltaire and more will open stores in the coming months. Carpaccio, the Bel Harbor Italian hotspot’s sole Northeast location, resides on the second floor and a champagne bar is also in the cards.

“There are few moments that make me as proud as unveiling The Avenue at American Dream,” said Don Ghermezian, American Dream CEO. “The addition of luxury shopping from the most sought-after fashion brands to our world-class attractions and contemporary retail has solidified American Dream as a destination not seen anywhere else.”

People walk through the newly opened luxury wing at the American Dream.
People walk through the newly opened luxury wing at the American Dream. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Avenue is the last frontier for the $5 billion megamall, which began to open portions of the property in October 2019 after 17 years in development. The mall feted the opening of The Avenue Friday morning with a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by Ghermezian, American Dream chief creative officer Ken Downing, Richard Baker, Hudson’s Bay Company governor, executive chairman and CEO, Bob Chavez, president and chief executive officer of Hermès USA as well as a host of Nickelodeon and Disney/Pixar characters like Shrek and SpongeBob SquarePants.

“We’ve been long waiting to bring this glorious gem to New Jersey,” Downing said.

Can American Dream, the 3 million-square-foot New Jersey retail, entertainment and dining complex, revive the allure of malls?
The newly opened luxury wing at the American Dream. AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey

Indeed, American Dream is on a journey. Initially brought to the table by The Mills Corporation in 2003 as Xanadu, a retail and entertainment center at the Meadowlands Sports Complex, the ambitious project saw its share of financial and political woes before Triple Five Group, the owner of Minnesota’s Mall of America, kickstarted development in 2011. The company restarted construction two years later.

Four 12-foot pink balloon animals flanked The Avenue’s entrance, however, the giant elephant at the mostly unmasked event was covid.

Though mall culture is a part of New Jersey’s DNA, the crowd’s local flavor only emphasized the billions of dollars being lost in touristic spending, especially from international travelers, who arguably form American Dream’s real target demographic. Following a 10-year period of record tourism growth, the Office of the New York State Comptroller OSC estimates the industry’s economic impact dropped by 75 percent from $80.3 billion in 2019 to $20.2 billion in 2020.

Ribbon-cutting ceremony for The Avenue at American Dream
Ribbon-cutting ceremony for The Avenue at American Dream American Dream

Attending a shopping mall’s opening amid an ongoing global health crisis that continues to fill the country’s ICUs and drive record e-commerce growth is a unique experience, to say the least. Despite these harsh realities, it was challenging not to be swept up in the excitement, or at least feel an empathetic sigh of relief for everyone involved in bringing American Dream to life. To persevere with a plan that only works if people can gather, play and interact, as the world shut down around it, speaks to the tenacity and vision behind the project.

“It is without a doubt the most incredible center in the world,” Ghermezian said. “This is something that the family is so excited to give to the state of New Jersey. We love this state. We live here now. We eat, live and breathe American Dream.”

Once a mall rat, always a mall rat

Following the ceremony, I grabbed Taco Bell for lunch from one of the mall’s food courts. I had just passed rows of store windows filled with wide-leg jeans, grunge-y flannel shirts and “Clueless”-inspired plaid skirts. Alanis Morrisette’s 1995 hit “Ironic” blared from the speaker. I couldn’t help but feel pangs of ’90s-kid nostalgia.

Could malls be the next relic Gen Z revives? I wondered wistfully.

Some of my earliest memories are of my mom and I spending time at the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove, N.Y., a mall she knew since her childhood, too. The Sanrio store filled with stationary was likely where my interest in writing began, and I remember the slide in The Children’s Place being a magnet for kids. There, I met Santa and the Easter Bunny. The buttery scent of soft pretzels and the sound of fountains are attached to these memories.

Malls became an even greater part of my tween and teenage years in Florida. While I was never a “mall rat” in the classical sense—the malls were too far for my friends and I to be dropped off to just loiter—going to the mall did become a weekend ritual for my mom, grandma and myself. We would rotate between malls, eventually branching out to farther and “fancier” malls that sprung up as the area expanded with new neighborhoods. We’d start our adventure in the late morning, refuel midday at one of the restaurants located inside or outside the mall and usually pull into our driveway before sundown.

I’m sure we bought things, but the time together is what I remember the most.

In fact, for me, all roads usually end with a mall. No matter where I am—Prague, Las Vegas, Amsterdam, Atlanta—I find myself wandering one, usually lost in thought. Shopping is a big draw, but malls are also a place that simultaneously feels unique to the area and also like home. I capped off my vacation in Hawaii this summer with a full day strolling the Ala Moana Center, the world’s largest outdoor shopping mall, catching a tan in between stores.

Ala Moana Center in Honolulu
Ala Moana Center in Honolulu AP/2020 Kyodo News

So when and why did “going to the mall” become unfashionable?

There is certainly something in the Manhattan air that makes residents—both born-and-bred and transplants—turn their nose up at malls. There’s a belief that Manhattan shopping is superior. Perhaps it’s their “bridge and tunnel” factor and how malls are associated with the unfashionable suburbs that we all know is no longer the case. I’d argue that the New York City is basically one big mall but without the perks of ambient music and clean public restrooms.

It still doesn’t explain why malls have fallen out of fashion across the U.S. By now we’ve all seen the images of the so-called “dead malls” in total disrepair due to too high rent, low foot traffic, bankruptcies, recessions, the rise of online shopping…you name it.

An abandoned storefront at the now closed Summit Point Mall in Waterford Township, Michigan
An abandoned storefront at Summit Point Mall in Waterford, Michigan. Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa USA

Consumers are as much to blame for their demise as are the execs who never pushed their businesses to evolve. I have a difficult time understanding the quagmire of what consumers expect from brands and retailers. We want to be eco-conscious, but we abuse free delivery, returns and unsustainable packaging. We outwardly laud independent retailers for their “curation,” but we’re thirsty for options and the cheapest price. We want convenience as well as experiences. It’s called “experiential retail” when Nordstrom or Saks opens a restaurant, bar, salon and shop-in-shops, but doesn’t that sound an awful lot like the very thing we’ve been fleeing? Malls.

Experience this

You won’t find a more experiential shopping experience than American Dream, where entertainment options (55 percent) outpace retail (45 percent).

Make no mistake about it, American Dream is a wacky place. An hour into visiting the 3 million-square-foot feast for the senses and you might begin to wonder if American Hallucination would have been a more appropriate name.

The drive into the grounds is airport-level complicated with Manhattan skyline views out one car window, the Meadowlands Sport Complex out another and a sea of concrete and construction filling the gaps in between. A sign reads “Welcome to the American Dream” followed by a second that reads “Excuse our appearance,” is sure to spark a moment of joy for cynical New Yorkers paying a visit. (Hurricane Ida flooded a section of the mall.)

Inside, however, is where the real glorious circus begins.

In fact, a circus may be the only form of entertainment missing at American Dream. On the opposite end of The Avenue lies a trove of all-American amusements spanning a NHL-regulation-sized ice skating rink and a New York City-themed aquarium with more than 3,000 creatures including sharks, to an Angry Birds-themed mini golf course and a Tilt, the Instagram bait inspired by artist Tracy Stum’s illusion artwork.

But the pièce de resistance is a trio of indoor anomalies. Nickelodeon Universe, the largest indoor amusement park in the Western Hemisphere, features junior, family and thrill rides as well as areas for private birthday parties. With an 81-degree Fahrenheit tropical climate all year long, the DreamWorks Water Park boasts the world’s largest indoor wave pool, 15 water slides, surfing lessons and swanky cabanas designed by Jonathan Adler. American Dream is also home to Big Snow, North America’s first and only indoor, real-snow, year-round ski and snow resort. Visitors can test gear from the mall’s ski shop or enjoy a bird’s eye-view from one of the several third-floor restaurants overlooking the slopes.

Inside Big Snow, the indoor ski park at the American Dream
Inside Big Snow, the indoor ski park at the American Dream Sipa USA via AP

Three floors of all-American dining and retail connect the entertainment complex to The Avenue. Skechers, PacSun, Abercrombie Kids and Build-a-Bear surround the Garden Court, a seating area filled with natural moss, crystals and gnome and mushroom statuary designed by Paloma Teppa. Downing said the fairytale-like spot has already been the backdrop to several marriage proposals. Court C, home to Old Navy, American Eagle, Ulta Beauty and Sephora, leads to Court D, which Downing likens to the mall’s library. There, guests work remotely at charging stations or enjoy one of the art and design books on display. Starbucks will eventually be available for delivery. The library is also home to mega-size versions of high-street favorites like Zara, Primark and H&M.

Can American Dream, the 3 million-square-foot New Jersey retail, entertainment and dining complex, revive the allure of malls?
Garden Court WWD

A part of me fears that I may cringe reading this in three years—that once the ribbon-cutting glow wears off that American Dream will have the same fate as most malls in the U.S. I recently went to International Plaza in Tampa—the mall I considered to be the classiest as a teen—and was dismayed by its swampy environment and the downgrade in tenants, which was magnified by the void left by its original anchor, Lord & Taylor.

American Dream will require continuous upkeep. Despite the skylights that Downing described as “piercing the ceiling,” parts of the mall feel dark. The colorful floor-to-ceiling murals that decorate long stretches of corridor begin to feel like temporary walls used to cover unused retail space, though I’d imagine the inner workings of American Dream must rival a small city. I worry about the fish that live in the fountains located in The Avenue. Nice in theory, but who protects them from coins and curious hands? Will the entire mall eventually smell like the wave pool? Will the Jonathan Adler pottery withstand daily wear and tear?

Nitpicking aside, American Dream is an experience and a destination, and now is the time for locals to enjoy it in all its glory. The paint is fresh, the facilities are clean, the stores are stocked and the staff—from sales associates to security guards—have not yet been worn down by the daily nuisances and stresses that comes with most retail jobs.

To put it simply, the American Dream is welcoming—a word that hasn’t been associated with traditional American retail in ages—but that may just be the mall rat in me talking.