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COVID complicates outlook for American Dream mall

New Jersey retail-entertainment site opens luxury wing

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Displays are ready for customers before the opening of Saks Fifth Avenue at the American Dream mall in East Rutherford, N.J., Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021.   If you build it during a pandemic, will they still come? American Dream put that to the test when it opened the new luxury shopping wing of its megamall in September.  The new wing comes as the world grapples with the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, which continues to threaten life -- and business -- from returning to normal.
Displays are ready for customers before the opening of Saks Fifth Avenue at the American Dream mall in East Rutherford, N.J., Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. If you build it during a pandemic, will they still come? American Dream put that to the test when it opened the new luxury shopping wing of its megamall in September. The new wing comes as the world grapples with the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, which continues to threaten life -- and business -- from returning to normal. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig) (Seth Wenig/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — If you build it during a pandemic, will they still come?

American Dream put that to the test when it opened the new luxury shopping wing of its megamall in September, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan in East Rutherford, N.J., featuring Saks Fifth Avenue, Dolce & Gabbana, Hermes and other luxury stores, along with exotic fish ponds, gardens and sculptures.

Like everything about American Dream, the timing has been less than ideal. The new wing comes as the world grapples with the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, which continues to threaten life — and business — from returning to normal.

American Dream took nearly two decades — and lots of fits and starts in between — to become a reality. When it finally did open its doors in October 2019, the giant shopping and entertainment complex was forced to close five months later as the coronavirus bore down on the globe.

It reopened in October 2020 with new safety protocols in place. But the pandemic has complicated its outlook, delayed expansion plans, cut off its cash flow and stolen international visitors. American Dream also lost a handful of key partners that either filed for bankruptcy — like Barneys New York, Century 21 and Lord & Taylor — or pulled out like retailer Montcler.

The new luxury wing marks the final construction phase of American Dream’s retail and entertainment offerings; it still has plans to add hotels. The luxury wing is expected to be a key highlight to the 3 million square feet of leasable space, more than half of which is dedicated to over a dozen entertainment attractions like a 16-story indoor ski slope and a water park. By year-end, it will have leased more than 85 percent of its space, according to an American Dream representative.

Ken Downing, chief creative officer of the mall’s owner Triple Five Group, acknowledged a bumpy start but says he’s optimistic about American Dream’s future. The spring and summer months were “very popular” as people were looking for a safe place to shop, dine and get away, he said.

American Dream’s website says it’s constantly cleaning the facility. Employees are required to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status while tenants and visitors are encouraged to do the same. The company delayed full-service indoor dining until the opening of a high-end Italian restaurant in its luxury wing.

Downing says the weekends bring 75,000 people to American Dream, which features a mix of high- and low-price retail tenants. When it first opened, American Dream said the initial goal was 45 million to 50 million visitors in the first year. Officials didn’t directly address whether they met that goal. Downing says people are traveling from greater New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia area and as far as California and Florida, but that he’s looking forward to international visitors, which should account for 20 percent of the overall base.

Triple Five, a Canada-based mall and entertainment conglomerate, took over American Dream in 2011 from two developers and reimagined it 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, Minn. — the two largest malls in North America.

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