Taking West Edmonton mall to New Jersey

Alberta’s Ghermezian family plans to build ‘the American Dream’
Richard Warnica
Taking West Edmonton mall to New Jersey
Wonderland: The controversial project would turn a wetlands into 700,000 sq. m of entertainment and retail space—the largest mall on Earth

The American Dream is endlessly malleable. That’s what makes it great, really. As a slogan, it can speak to free enterprise, or immigration or the God-given right to appear on reality TV. If you stretch it far enough, the American Dream can be whatever you want it to be. Even if you’re not American. Even if your dream is a super-mall with a ski hill on a swamp in New Jersey.

Alberta’s Ghermezian family opened the West Edmonton Mall 30 years ago this month. At the time, it was the largest retail complex in the world. Eventually it grew to include a skating rink, an amusement park and a wave pool. In a lot of ways, it reimagined what a mall could be. For a while, it also looked like it would be the first of many to come. The Ghermezians—father Jacob and sons Eskander, Nader, Bahman and Raphael—helped open the Mall of America, a behemoth of similar scope, in Minnesota in 1992. They had dreams of megamalls in Maryland and Las Vegas. But those projects foundered. In the meantime, other malls overtook the Ghermezian set. Today the West Edmonton Mall is either the third or the fifth largest in the world, depending on who’s measuring. The Mall of America is way down the list, behind rivals in Dubai and Beijing.

But now the Ghermezians have plans to get their title back. In May, their Triple Five development company signed a contract to take over what, if all goes as planned, would become the largest mall complex on Earth. The Ghermezian blueprints call for 700,000 square metres of entertainment and retail space on a controversial plot in the wetlands of New Jersey. About US $2 billion has already been spent on the project, with another $1.7 billion scheduled to come. Along with Triple Five staples such as minigolf and a water park, the complex will boast a skydiving centre and North America’s first indoor ski hill. Sketches of the site look almost eerily like parts of the West Edmonton Mall. But Triple Five says the project is all red, white and blue. In fact, the Ghermezians have dubbed it “The American Dream at Meadowlands,” a name they say speaks to “opportunity”—for jobs and tourists and tax revenue—but that one local columnist called “not just dumb [but] downright blasphemy.”

The Meadowlands project was controversial long before the Ghermezians became involved. Originally pitched by a Japanese company, it went through two other developers before creditors took it over after the market crashed in 2008. It currently sits, unfinished, off the New Jersey turnpike. It’s a lightning rod for critics left and right, not to mention the many who find the development at least a little bit garish. (State Gov. Chris Christie has called it “the ugliest damn building in New Jersey and maybe America.”)

But controversy was never likely to keep the Ghermezians away. Over the years the family has outlasted accusations of bribery, flirtations with bankruptcy, and a court case or three. They’ve been called “reclusive,” “elusive” and “secretive”—not to mention “combative,” “formidable” and “notoriously aggravating”—at least as negotiators. And yet, for all that, they continue to thrive.

The American Dream at Meadowlands comes with some built-in handicaps. But no project is perfect. Even the Ghermezians’ signature development, the West Edmonton Mall, wasn’t built without hiccups. The mall was heavily leveraged from the start. The company needed five tiers of mortgages worth nearly half a billion dollars to get it off the ground. When the economy stuttered in the 1990s, the mall suffered and the loans inched toward default. The Ghermezians looked set to lose the facility in 1994 before Alberta Treasury Branches stepped in with a deal to refinance the mall. ATB would later allege in court that the brothers landed that deal by bribing the ATB superintendent. The Ghermezians denied the allegations and counter-sued. The two sides settled out of court in 2002. No criminal charges were laid against the brothers.

They were accused of making dodgy payouts again in 2006, when a former Las Vegas politician testified that Triple Five Nevada Development Corp. paid her $3,000 a month over a period of years after she voted in favour of their proposed casino project. The accusation came in the midst of a larger graft investigation unrelated to Triple Five and from a woman already convicted of corruption. The Ghermezians and their lawyers dismissed the claim. Neither the Ghermezians nor the company was ever charged.

The Ghermezian family has a reputation for avoiding interviews and much of their story comes off as at least half myth. One associate told the Globe and Mail in 1991 he arrived at a meeting with the Ghermezian brothers once and found them at a table eating chicken. The brothers worked at the birds throughout the session. They never offered him a seat. “It was really quite unbelievable,” he told the paper. A Triple Five spokesman was asked about the current structure of the family business for this story, but he did not respond.

Stories of the Ghermezians’ hard-nosed business style, though, are grounded in fact. In 1999, the family went to court to force their partners in the Mall of America to sell out their claims. They won that suit and took full control of the retail palace soon after.

That’s not to say they always win. Triple Five’s Great Mall of Las Vegas died on the planning table. The American Dream, meanwhile, was originally supposed to be a super-mall in a Maryland suburb. The project needed public money to move forward, though, and local politicians balked.

Version two of the Ghermezians’ American Dream faces its own share of obstacles. The development has been “entangled with New Jersey politics” from the very beginning, says Terry Golway, who teaches American history at the nearby Kean University. Plans for a complex in the area were first hatched in 1996. They shuddered through three developers before grinding to a halt in 2009.

What was left was a “monstrosity,” in the words of one New York reporter, a 185,000 sq.-m mall with no tenants and a parking lot sinking into a swamp. So much public money has been pumped into the development already that the Nation magazine dubbed it “the longest-running losing battle America’s ever fought, except for the Afghan war.”

Which is where the Ghermezians come in.

Last May, Gov. Christie held a press conference in the mall to announce a deal that will see Triple Five not only complete the project, but expand it. The Ghermezians have pledged to make the mall a beacon for tourists and locals alike. To help fund the deal, Christie promised somewhere between $200 million and $350 million in state help, mostly through deferred tax relief.

Triple Five boasts that the project will bring billions of dollars in benefits to the area while pumping tens of thousands of new jobs into the local economy. But critics have not been kind to the deal so far. “If there is a project that can happen there that can succeed, fine,” says David Smiley, a professor of architecture and urban studies at Barnard College. “But it has proceeded as if it’s a kind of half-public project and that’s where I think it steps over the line.” Smiley thinks finite state dollars would be better spent helping smaller, more local businesses thrive. If American Dream can’t stand alone, he believes, it shouldn’t stand at all. One local environmentalist, meanwhile, has already dubbed the project “American Nightmare,” while others question whether the area, less than 20 km from Manhattan, needs a new shopping centre larger than the Pentagon.

But American Dream, like the West Edmonton Mall, isn’t just about shopping. It’s supposed to be a destination, an attraction unto itself. “It will help drive tourists from New York as well as New Jersey,” says Dan Jasper, a spokesman for Triple Five’s Mall of America. As for those who don’t want public money spent on the deal, Jasper says any “significant project, and this is a significant project, takes a public-private partnership to work.” Triple Five hopes to open American Dream in late 2013. In the meantime, the company is working to make the building more eco-friendly, Jasper says.

As for the Ghermezians, two of them were on hand for Christie’s press conference in May. Nader Ghermanian, the elder statesman, spoke for Triple Five. His nephew Paul, part of the next generation, led reporters on a tour. At one point, Paul was asked about the mall’s name. “The tourists who come here are going to say, ‘This is America!’ ” he said by way of explanation, according to New York magazine. And in a way, he’s right. That’s what makes America great, after all. If you can pull it off, it’s whatever you want it to be. And in that world, the Ghermezians are more American than most.