Miami Herald: Two mega-malls, one developer. Do problems in New Jersey suggest troubles ahead for Miami?

As the developer behind the American Dream Miami mega-mall promises to launch a massive retail theme park in Northwest Miami-Dade, the company is making a different promise in New Jersey: that the American Dream Meadowlands will, in fact, get done.

Developer Triple Five has been fending off critical news coverage in New Jersey for its long-delayed effort to build the original American Dream retail theme park there, where reporters have described the construction site as seemingly idle. “Work on Meadowlands mall has stalled and developer won’t answer questions,” read the March 23 headline in The Record, the paper covering the area.

The bond sale allowing Triple Five to borrow about $1.2 billion needed to finish the $5 billion complex missed a fall deadline last year, and local officials are left to fend off questions about why the construction site seems so quiet.

“People there see cranes not moving,” East Rutherford Mayor James Cassella told the Miami Herald last week. “They see when people aren’t working there. So they ask questions.”

Triple Five’s New Jersey representative did not respond to requests for comments, but a Miami lobbyist said the project remains actively moving toward completion. “There are 250 people working on the building right now as we speak,” said Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a land-use lawyer and former state senator in Florida representing Triple Five in Miami-Dade.

Diaz de la Portilla said the leader of the family-owned firm, Eskandar Ghermezian, is keeping cash flowing while American Dream Meadowlands awaits the bond sale designed to pay for the project. “Eskandar is financing it out of his own pocket,” he said. “Eskandar is totally unconcerned. The project will get done.”

The slow pace in New Jersey is magnified by the long-running saga of the American Dream site there. Home to MetLife Stadium, where the New York Giants and New York Jets play, the state-owned complex has been shopping for a successful retail developer for more than a decade.

Triple Five took over the project in 2010, after two previous developers failed to gain traction on a project once known as Xanadu. Triple Five, owner of the Mall of America in Minnesota, was hailed as a savior and won agreements from New Jersey to let it divert some sales and property taxes to pay bond holders.

While Triple Five won government backing for the loans, the developer is faced with the task of finding investors willing to buy the bonds on Wall Street. “Any day now, Triple Five may publish its bond prospectus, which will run hundreds of pages long and will make the company’s argument for why investors should believe in American Dream,” the Record wrote in September 2015.

The bond documents have not been released. When a group opposing the New Jersey project sued to block the bond issuance last year, Triple Five said in court filings that delaying the bond offering past November could risk “default and/or foreclosure and the likely failure altogether of American Dream.” The suit was dismissed, and November came and went without a bond sale.

Triple Five doesn’t face the same kind of timetable in Miami-Dade, where it’s still awaiting approval to proceed with zoning the site for the six-million-square-foot complex. The developer didn’t get an offer for public financing in Miami-Dade, where it has pledged to build its 200-acre theme park without government subsidies.

A coalition of large malls in the Miami area fighting the project are pressing elected leaders to impose restrictions on funding, including a ban on Triple Five creating a special district that could let it use property-tax revenue linked to the project to pay construction debt. Triple Five has not requested that kind of a district.

The group backed by the owners of Sawgrass Mills, Bayside Marketplace and the Dolphin Mall is pointing to the New Jersey project as a warning that Miami-Dade shouldn’t trust Triple Five.

“Triple Five’s delayed mega mall project in New Jersey presents a cautionary tale for Miami-Dade,” the group, South Florida Taxpayers Alliance, said in a statement. “Despite receiving over a billion dollars in public subsidies, construction has stalled, job and economic development promises remain unmet and what started like a dream has turned into a true nightmare for that community.”

The focus on New Jersey highlights the stakes for Triple Five, which opened the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, in 1992. American Dream Meadowlands is set to be its second U.S. shopping theme park. When the company selected Miami for a third project in 2015, a $3 billion complex large enough to hold an indoor ski slope and submarine rides, Meadowlands was the model. Renderings of the proposed Miami project transplanted drawings from the New Jersey project into Miami materials, including the skyline visible from the imagined indoor amusement park featured in both projects.

Mayor Cassella said Triple Five’s pursuit of a twin project in Miami-Dade has sparked some head scratching in East Rutherford, which is expecting its American Dream to open in the fall of 2018.

“I find it interesting that this one hasn’t even opened yet, and they’re starting on Miami,” Cassella said. “Maybe we can start wagers on which one is going to open first.”

by Douglas Hanks

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