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Here's what you'll find when you hit America's newest mega-mall

Welcome to the American Dream mall

When the "American Dream" shopping mall and entertainment complex was first conceived more than two decades ago, the internet was in its infancy and Amazon.com was still a gleam in Jeff Bezos's eye. Yet while times have clearly changed, the facility's operators — which opened its doors on Friday in East Rutherford, New Jersey  — think consumers haven't completely given up on the idea of hitting the mall. 

The mall is the second-largest in the U.S. and cost an estimated $5 billion to build. It is launching at a time when thousands of brick-and-mortar retailers are closing shop. It will showcase 3 million square feet of leasable space dedicated to more than a dozen entertainment attractions, including a 16-story indoor ski slope, rollercoaster, water park and eventually 450 retail, food and specialty shops. Here's what consumers can expect to find.

American Dream Opening
Visitors to the American Dream shopping complex in East Rutherford, N.J., use the Nickelodeon Universe theme park on Oct. 25, 2019.  Richard Drew / AP

In today's retail landscape, consumers are glued to their iPhones and smartphones, where they can do their shopping without ever leaving their couch. Amazon has morphed into the biggest online retailer in the world. And overall traffic at malls, which had been on the rise in the late 1990s, has declined 10% since, according to Coresight Research.

A report from Credit Suisse published two years ago predicted that up to a quarter of the shopping malls will close by 2022 given the increasing popularity of online shopping and a rash of store closings. Since 2015, only nine malls have been built, a dramatic fall from their peak construction in 1973 of 43, according to CoStar Group, a real estate research firm.

Stores across the U.S. are closing at a rapid pace. More than 7,000 retail outlets closed in the first half of 2019, versus 3,017 stores opening. In 2018, 5,864 stores closed and 3,258 opened.

The mall will also prove to be a challenge for those who don't want to pay for parking, as it will charge $24 to park for eight hours, reports CBS New York. For those who don't want to pay for parking, express buses will run from New York City and Secaucus, while shuttle buses will run from Weehawken's ferry station, CBS New York added.

Goal: 40 million visitors

Amid that new reality, American Dream is looking to draw 40 million visitors in its first year, with entertainment accounting for more than half of its space. Attractions include a live bunny field and an aviary. There will also be such amenities as a doggy day care and a luxury wing, where shoppers can sip champagne and sample caviar as they wait to have their designer handbags wrapped. Two hotels with a total of 3,500 rooms are being planned next to the complex.

"You can make it your backyard playground if you live in Manhattan or even if you're in New Jersey," said Ken Downing, chief creative officer for Triple Five Group, the mall's developer. "It's a staycation. So, it's a little bit of competing with mindset and emotion, far more than a property or even Disneyland."

Downing says American Dream was designed to adapt to different events and trends. A grand court's fountain, for example, can convert into a catwalk for a runway show. The ice rink can be transformed into a concert venue.

Canada-based mall and entertainment conglomerate Triple Five in 2011 took over the massive project originally dubbed Xanadu from two developers, whose plans included building the world's largest Ferris wheel. The project broke ground in 2004 but it languished during the early years, with its multi-colored, checkerboard exterior — since removed — drawing derision, including from then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who called it "an offense to the eyes" and "the ugliest damn building in New Jersey and maybe America."

American Dream Opening
Workmen in an unfinished section of the mall, which will include attractions like an aviary and a live bunny field.  Richard Drew / AP

Financial crisis setback

The project was suspended in 2009 during the financial crisis after a Lehmann Bros. affiliate failed to fund its share of the construction. Creditors seized the project in 2010, and Triple Five came on board a year later, renaming it American Dream.

Triple Five reimagined American Dream as a community hub for tourists and locals, taking a page from two other malls it had developed, West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada and Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota — the two largest malls in North America. Entertainment was a big selling point for both, accounting for 20% of the West Edmonton Mall's space and 30% of Mall of America's. That compares with the 6% average for U.S. malls, according to CoStar.

American Dream has its fair share of skeptics who wonder about its chances of success, especially given its proximity to New York City less than 10 miles away.

"This development will either sink or swim," said Jason Goldberg, chief commerce strategy officer of Publicis Communications. "It's going to be tough to get a lot of attention when you are next to a much bigger amusement park — Manhattan."

American Dream Opening
Sabrina Piliero, with World Ice Events, practices on the ice skating rink inside the American Dream mall. Richard Drew / AP

American Dream mall stores

Goldberg believes the complex could work if the amusement park entices enough families in New Jersey to get into their cars and drive out there. But he's not sure about how stores will fare since many of the tenants like Zara and Uniqlo can be found elsewhere. 

Another thorny situation: The mall will abide by the blue laws, meaning retail will be closed Sundays even though the restaurants and theme parks will be open, says James Cassella, the East Rutherford, N.J. mayor.

Stores featured in the mall will include Saks Fifth Avenue, Primark, Hermes and Lululemon, according to WOBM.com. 

Despite retailing's challenges, some malls are thriving: While vacancy rates on average at the nation's malls are currently at 4%, top malls have been the industry's bright spot, boasting strong traffic and currently averaging a 2% vacancy rate, says CoStar. That's compared with the bottom rung of malls, which are wrestling with a 7% average vacancy rate.

David Smiley, assistant director of urban design at Columbia University, predicts American Dream "will do quite well."

"There's a lot of uncertainty in the retail world," Smiley said. "But American Dream is unusual. It is not a typical mall."

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