American Dream Meadowlands Taking It One Phase At A Time

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More than a decade ago, a developer of a multi-billion dollar entertainment and retail project at the Meadowlands Sports Complex began mulling a multi-phase grand opening of the site.

A savvy member of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority warned against the idea, telling them, “You only get one chance to make a great first impression with the public.”

But beginning later this month, the latest developer of such a project is taking the opposite approach.

The Oct. 25 opening date — of a project concept that has roots in the 1990s, was born as the Meadowlands Xanadu proposal in 2002, and was reinvented by Triple Five in 2011 — has been known for months.

But now it has been revealed that the project will open in four phases — with the 350 retail stores not debuting until March 2020.

Leading off will be Nickelodeon Universe Theme Park and an NHL-sized skating rink. The park will draw the bigger media buzz, by far, with 35 rides and evidence of SpongeBob, Dora The Explorer, and friends all over the more than 300k-square-foot site.

Will those attractions be enough to make a splash in the New York-area media market? This is one case where the general cynicism of the public should play in the developer’s favor.

Mall of America musings

If you have ever been to the Mall of America near Minneapolis, Minn., then you have a very good idea of what’s ahead — it not only has the same developer, but it also is Nickelodeon-themed.

I visited the Minnesota version on assignment several years ago, and the amusement park was quite memorable. The best way I can describe it is like walking into a cartoon.

Bright lights and colors, the whirling motion of the rides, and the sounds of children screaming (mostly with delight). Early visitors to Mall of America even were told to consider stepping outside into the mall area after a couple of hours to avoid feeling a bit disoriented.

That won’t be a problem for millennials, so they’ll like it. And the Nickelodeon Slime Stage? Little kids will love that.

If the plan goes as hoped, the opening buzz will still be heard even as the similarly-sized DreamWorks Water Park opens on Nov. 27 – the day before Thanksgiving. Expect big crowds for 40 water slides and more than a dozen other attractions such a lazy river at “North America’s Largest Indoor Water Park.”

The Madagascar Rainforest, the Kung Fu Panda Zone, and Shrek’s Swamp no doubt will inspire countless souvenir offerings at the gift shop.

Only eight days later — on Thursday, Dec. 5 — Big Snow is scheduled to open as “North America’s only indoor real-snow park.”

This is interesting, because when I got a tour inside the project circa 2005, I was told that while Xanadu had a long way to go overall, what was then called the “snowdome” could be open to the public in just a couple of weeks if the then-developer so desired (it didn’t, because they didn’t).

Of course, that was before a multi-year state of “benign neglect”  befell the project when lenders ran out of money during the recession in early 2009 — and before, in quite a feat of irony, the exterior of the snowdome became damaged by, you guessed it, heavy snowfall.

If you have driven by the site recently, you’ll have noticed that all of the green, red, yellow, and blue decor of the project has been replaced by white, grey, and glass. The exception was that all-shades-of-orange snowdome — and there was recent talk that even that would be “decolored” in time for what then seemed like would be a grander opening.

On a visit a few weeks ago, I noticed that much of one narrow side of the project already had turned white. That seemed promising — but on my visit on Tuesday, little further progress seemed to have been made. Perhaps the thought is just to get it done by Dec. 5.

Shopping arrives last

What at first looks like the more disquieting aspect of this project, though, is that the “retail half” — about 350 stores and more than 1 mm square feet — isn’t promised for five or six months.

Who would want to miss being open in time for Christmas shopping season, if at all possible? The retail world today is almost unrecognizable compared to the pre-online shopping days of the early 2000s.

Did the brick-and-mortar retail segment miss its window of opportunity?

Also coming in March 2020, apparently: Legoland Discovery Center, SEA LIFE Aquarium, a Kidzania role-playing spot for children, and a nearly 300-foot high observation wheel made to echo the London Eye.

No word on why they are not opening this year (although the sheer weight of the water inside a massive aquarium presumably presents daunting design challenges).

But if you look at this 2.9 mm-square-foot project with a traffic-minded lens, this sequence might work best in the long run.

Clearly there are concerns about traffic, and NJ Transit recently has at least made some progress on offering additional bus service to the site, which also features a rail link from nearby Secaucus Junction (although riders emerge into the MetLife Stadium parking lot, which is on the other side of Route 120 from American Dream).

The extra buses will help bring thousands of part-time employees to the site without adding to road congestion, and over time perhaps a significant number of tourists will avail themselves of the option as well.

The staggered opening will help all transportation agencies figure out how to handle an influx of visitors that could reach 30 mm or more.

Meadowlands Racetrack patrons and employees, meanwhile, will begin adjusting to life with a popular new neighbor in stages.

And for those who dream of a casino someday coming to the Meadowlands — well, how the traffic shakes out in the first year of American Dream will offer clues as to how practical such an idea might be.

If all of the project opened at once, the various attractions would cannibalize each other in terms of media attention.

The amusement and water parks and the snowdome are all very visual attractions — which is the key to going viral on Youtube and Instagram in particular. Now Triple Five gets — well, triple the opportunity to make a splash.

How high are the stakes? The Wall Street Journal reports that Triple Five has pledged nearly half of its stake in its Minnesota and Edmonton, Canada malls as collateral.

From a megamall to an entertainment center after all

Longtime observers of this project — I started covering it more than 17 years ago — will see a certain irony here.

That’s because a predecessor even to Xanadu was to be a “megamall” planned in the late 1990s on environmentally-sensitive wetlands in Carlstadt adjacent to the then-Brendan T. Byrne Arena (later known as Continental Arena and Izod Center before it was shuttered).

When that failed, insider politics led to a pitch to simply move the project next door at the arena site in East Rutherford. But since the “megamall” would be on state land, a mall developer would pay not real estate taxes but instead pay far less expensive “payments-in-lieu of taxes” — or PILOTs.

That wouldn’t be economically or politically feasible, so the developer — defunct Mills Corp. — added some entertainment attractions that it hoped would prove appealing, such as a minor league baseball park and rollercoasters.

Once the board of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority chose the Xanadu plan over five other proposals in 2003, a multi-year legal battle ensued over whether this was just a megamall in sheep’s clothing.

When Triple Five took over nearly a decade later, there was less blowback from the public on calling it a mall — yet the Edmonton-based developer actually did seek to focus a majority of the square footage to entertainment.

And lo and behold, it opens this month with the entertainment component leading the way.

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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