EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Super Bowl offers its host locale a priceless showcase. But on display this year is perhaps the nation's biggest commercial real estate fiasco: a gargantuan, long-stalled mall that Gov. Chris Christie has called "the ugliest damn building in New Jersey, and maybe America.''
And he's one of the project's biggest boosters.
The proposed retail-and-entertainment extravaganza — complete with indoor ski slope, water park and wave machine — started life more than a decade ago as "Xanadu," on public land next to Met Life Stadium in the Jersey Meadowlands. The owners of the Mall of America in Minnesota have taken over and redesigned the project, renamed it "American Dream" and added plans for an indoor water park and DreamWorks Animation-themed amusement park.
Despite promises by Christie and the developers that it would be open by Super Sunday, American Dream's pleasures remain as ephemeral as the opium-fired reverie that inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem Kubla Khan ("In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a pleasure dome decree …'').
Next month, the inert, empty hulk, whose façade of garishly colored rectangles evokes empty cargo containers stacked at Port Newark, promises to embarrass the state and the Republican governor (and possible presidential candidate) who helped resurrect it three years ago.
Those passing it en route to the stadium or watching TV will see "a big ugly building that looks like a giant transformer stuck in the muck,'' says Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, who has criticized the project from the start. "It'll be a Jersey joke.''
Not to Christie, who has described the project as a "jobs machine" for about 9,000 construction workers and 11,000 regular employees. Nor to Chuck Lanyard, a retail leasing broker who loves its location at the confluence of two major highways in the nation's most affluent, most densely populated region.
But the project is on its third developer, its fourth governor and at least its 10th promised opening date. It has been plagued by everything from the fall of Lehman Brothers to the Euro crisis and the collapse of a snow-heavy section of its roof.
And, in perhaps the ultimate indignity, American Dream is being sued by the NFL's New York Giants and Jets, who play at Met Life Stadium (and as such are the Super Bowl's nominal hosts). They want to avert gridlock by making sure the water and theme parks don't open on game days.
American Dream's 2.9 million square feet will include the 12-story-high ski slope; a 27-story observation wheel, somewhat like the London Eye; an aquarium with 10,000 creatures ranging from sharks to jellyfish; an NHL-size ice rink; and hundreds of stores and restaurants, including "the world's first exclusive kosher food hall.''
But when will it open? Across the land, the fiscal crisis and the recession doomed a generation of American dreams. But Lanyard and other retail experts say they know of none so big, so visible and so tortured as the one marooned hard by the Turnpike in the swamps of Jersey.
MORE THAN A MALL
In 2003, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which controls the Meadowlands Sports Complex, selected a plan to develop part of the site that made Kubla Khan's Xanadu seem pedestrian.
It was not called a shopping mall — that was the last thing over-malled North Jersey needed. Xanadu would be a destination, with America's first indoor ski slope, a wind tunnel to simulate sky diving, a wave machine for indoor surfing and a giant Ferris wheel offering views of the Manhattan skyline.
Profit would flow not so much from skiing and surfing as from selling things to the people these diversions would attract. Tenants include Cabela's, the outdoor recreation retailer, which planned to open a 160,000-square-foot store.
After numerous delays, including those caused by the developer's financial problems, by 2007 Xanadu had taken shape. But many of the 300,000 motorists who drove past each day didn't like what they saw.
The facade of the huge building was decorated with panels featuring every unpleasant hue in the spectrum. Even in a state where bad design is not exactly unusual, Xanadu became an aesthetic whipping boy. State Senate President Richard Codey, a Democrat, spoke for those of both parties when he called it "yucky-looking.''
Jansen, one of the architects, told the Sports Authority board that Xanadu "was intended to be a playful building. It wasn't intended to be a serious building."
Jansen counseled patience: "Everybody seems to be judging the building as they see it right now. ... You need to wait until it's finished.''
Actually, it was finished. There was no money for the signs, screens and lights that would have covered the façade. The background had become the foreground.
And looks were not Xanadu's biggest problem. After the fiscal crisis in fall 2008, financing collapsed, tenants pulled out and construction ground to a halt with work at least 20% unfinished.
Christie, as a candidate for governor in 2009, had been a vocal critic of Xanadu. When he inherited the problem after taking office, he doubled down, committing hundreds of millions in state bonding authority to restart the project under Triple Five, developers and owners of the Mall of America in Minnesota.
When the arrangement was announced in 2011, some of the promised attractions — including the wind and wave machines — were dropped. But Christie and the developers said American Dream would be a reality by Feb. 2, 2014, the date of Super Bow XLVIII.
'A WEALTH GENERATOR'
What some regard as the Jersey Joke has some serious implications.
• Economically. Richard Hughes, dean of the Bloustein School of Public Policy at Rutgers University, says the project's importance in jobs, revenue and taxes actually has grown in the decade since it was proposed. That's partly because other regional mainstays, such as pharmaceuticals and financial services, have declined.
Unlike a shopping mall that essentially recirculates local money, American Dream could attract business from outside the state and the region, making it what Hughes calls "a wealth generator.''
• Cosmetically. Xanadu reinforced national perceptions about the state's penchant for public boondoggles, commercial sprawl and environmental desecration.
The Sierra Club's Tittel says the project will be the biggest non-industrial greenhouse gas generator in the state, if not in the entire Northeast, and a despoiler of a sensitive marsh ecosystem popular with migratory birds. "There's an irony,'' he says, ''to building a water park on a wetland.''
But Hughes says the focus on the stalled project won't really change New Jersey's image; the state already is the butt of so many jokes that it doesn't have much to lose
• Politically. Christie needs all the wins he can get after the scandal created by aideswho tied up traffic at the George Washington Bridge to punish a local political enemy. And he is tied to American Dream. "There's no way for him to avoid it,'' Hughes says. By supporting Triple Five's bid to restart the project, Christie "took a risky position to save this.''
Although Triple Five says American Dream will attract 40 million visitors a year, it's unclear whether the project can compete with tourist destinations such as the Empire State Building; if shoppers, increasingly drawn to the pedestrian-friendly likes of Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles, will flock to a suburban mall surrounded by parking lots; and if anyone will want to ski indoors in winter, when they can do so outdoors, or in summer, when they can go to the Jersey Shore.
Aside from some site preparation work, American Dream remains dormant. The need to expand and redesign the original project, obtain permits and arrange public financing has pushed the deadline steadily back.
Alan Marcus, spokesman for Triple Five, says major construction will become visible "reasonably soon'' and take 18 to 24 months, meaning the Dream will remain just that at least until 2016.
Marcus won't name the anchor stores he says have committed to the mall, nor say on the record whether settlement talks with the Giants and Jets are progressing, or exactly how the building will be redesigned. A rendering on the American Dream website http://www.americandream.com shows a light, glistening facade — the antithesis of what's there now.
Plans to paint the current aluminum facade a less offensive color in time for the Super Bowl were postponed due to cold weather. During game week, the site, which is surrounded by a fence, will be used as a police staging area.
Marcus says the game is irrelevant to the project — "We can't adjust to artificial deadlines'' — and that, anyway, when the big day arrives, "nobody's going to be looking at American Dream.'' TV will show the New York skyline, he adds, as if the game were taking place in Manhattan.
But the big game is a big deal for New Jersey. Usually, it focuses attention on famous tourist attractions such as Bourbon Street or South Beach or less familiar venues such as Tampa's Ybor City historical district or the Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego. Were American Dream open, its observation wheel and ski slope would have struck a festive note.
Jim Kirkos, president of the Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce, still hopes for tangible progress before the game.
"That it hasn't opened is bad enough, but not having positive news is worse,'' he says. "I want to be able to hand out brochures, saying, 'This is what's gonna be here!'''