Work on Delayed NJ Megamall Expected to Resume — 4 Years Later

Even in a state renowned for its huge shopping malls, the massive building with its dizzying mishmash of pastel panels is astounding in its scope: 300 retail stores, an indoor ski and snowboard park, high-end dining, a Hollywood theme park and more.

Almost as remarkable is the tortuous path it has taken, a 10-year odyssey that has included four governors, multiple developers and the staunch opposition of two NFL franchises.

It now appears the $3 billion project, dubbed American Dream Meadowlands, could soon become a reality — but not in time for New Jersey's biggest event in years, the 2014 Super Bowl at adjacent MetLife Stadium.

Construction on the structure, whose brightly colored exterior resembles a hulking Lego fortress sunk into a swamp, has been halted for years because of financial troubles, a foreclosure and an ownership change. It is expected to resume soon, finally kick-starting work on a building that Gov. Chris Christie once called the "ugliest damn building in New Jersey and maybe America."

"We anticipate that construction should start by the end of this month," said Jon Hanson, a real estate executive who is Christie's adviser on the sports and entertainment industries.

Officials had hoped the complex would be completed by the Super Bowl, and some space still could be available to organizers for parties or events even if the rest of the mall isn't completed.

The fact that American Dream won't be completed by next February is of little worry to the developer, Alberta, Canada-based Triple Five.

"It's not an issue," said Alan Marcus, a company spokesman. "The Super Bowl is one week, this project is 100 years."

It's the latest saga in a development project that was conceived as a glitzy fantasy land, crashed to reality and is now trying to rev up after a decade of fits and starts.

But there's still quite a bit of work that needs to happen.

Triple Five, which owns the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., and the West Edmonton Mall in Canada, must take over the title of the land from former lenders. At that point Triple Five can move to secure the $1.75 billion that's still needed to finance the project.

Triple Five plans to ask the state for an economic development grant that would allow it to recoup $400 million in sales tax; the East Rutherford Borough Council passed a resolution last month supporting the incentive.

The rest of the money would come from tax-exempt financing and private lending.

American Dream is expected to be completed 18 to 24 months after construction resumes.

Long-standing issues involving the owners of the NFL's New York Jets and New York Giants also must be hammered out. For years, the teams have opposed the mall being allowed to open on game days, and last year they sued Triple Five and the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority, the public body that must approve the project.

The suit claims the sports authority violated an agreement by letting Triple Five expand the project's original footprint without consulting the teams. The teams claim the new, larger complex would create a traffic nightmare on game days.

The Giants and Jets have been negotiating with the developers for months over a parking and traffic plan but haven't reached an agreement, said Karen Kessler, a spokeswoman for the teams. A contentious public hearing on the issue in January produced a brief shouting match between sports authority and Giants representatives.

"The mere fact that everybody is still talking over the last several months shows that there could be avenues available," NJSEA chairman Wayne Hasenbalg said this week. "The hope is that everybody keeps talking so that at some point we have a way to address these concerns in a way that's agreeable to all the parties."

DreamWorks plans to build an amusement park on the site. The developers are not yet saying which retail stores will anchor the complex.

The stores, however, won't be able to open Sundays unless Bergen County blue laws, which prohibit most retail activity on Sundays, are changed or the mall is exempted.

The project was originally known as Xanadu, and was conceived as an entertainment mecca.

The NJSEA oversaw the project, which was initially to be built with private money. In 2003 it chose a partnership of the Mills Corporation and Mack-Cali Realty to build it. Plagued by cost overruns, it was taken over in 2006 by Colony Capital, which planned even more amusements, including the world's largest Ferris wheel. In 2009 construction was stopped because financing dried up in the recession. It was essentially foreclosed upon, and Triple Five took over in 2010.

Christie, who said last month he is optimistic that construction will start soon, said American Dream will be a "job machine for the people of New Jersey."

Developers say the project could create 9,000 construction and 15,000 full-time jobs.

Hasenbalg was optimistic and said Christie's support of the project has been crucial.

"I think for the first time we feel we're extremely close and there really is light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "We're close to having the project up and running. The governor has repeatedly said that, and he's been pretty clear in his expectations."

East Rutherford Mayor James Casella admitted he's been worn down by all the stops and starts over the last 10 years, but said he can envision a day when the project could finally finish.

"I too believe that they're going to resolve all these issues and it's going to open," Casella said. "Do I feel we've been down this road so many times and am I 100 percent sure? No. That could never happen."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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