The Mall That Would Save America

July 3, 2005


By Amanda Griscom Little
The New York Times Magazine

Robert Congel, a commercial real-estate developer who lives in upstate New York, has a plan to ''change the world.'' Convinced that it will ''produce more benefit for humanity than any one thing that private enterprise has ever done,'' he is raising $20 billion to make it happen. That's 12 times the yearly budget of the United Nations and more than 25 times Congel's own net worth. What Congel has in mind is an outsize and extremely unusual mega-mall. Destiny U.S.A., the retail-and-entertainment complex he is building in upstate New York, aspires to be not only the biggest man-made structure on the planet but also the most environmentally friendly. Equal parts Disney World, Las Vegas, Bell Laboratories and Mall of America -- with a splash of Walden Pond -- the ''retail city'' will include the usual shops and restaurants as well as an extensive research facility for testing advanced technologies and a 200-acre recreational biosphere complete with springlike temperatures and an artificial river for kayaking.

After a false start in 2002, countless changes of plan and a storm of local opposition, Congel is finally breaking ground again, with a projected completion date of 2009. Later this month, bulldozers powered by biodiesel are scheduled to begin leveling the site, a rehabilitated brownfield in Syracuse, Congel's hometown. Whether Congel's firm, the Pyramid Companies, can maintain the cash flow and political support needed to complete the project is a subject of much local debate. Also disputed are Congel's goals of creating 200,000 jobs regionally and making Destiny nothing less than ''the No. 1 tourist destination in America.''

More mind-boggling than the sheer scope of Destiny is its agenda. Congel emphasizes that renewable energy alone will power the mall, with its 1,000 shops and restaurants, 80,000 hotel rooms, 40,000-seat arena and Broadway-style theaters. As a result, Congel says, Destiny will jump-start renewable-energy markets nationwide with its investments in solar, wind, fuel cells and other alternative-energy sources. But if Congel does manage to erect his El Dorado, will it really help cure our country's addiction to scarce and highly polluting fossil fuel? Or will it just be a cleverly marketed boondoggle that may create more environmental problems than it solves?

All by itself, the mall would boost America's solar-electric power capacity by nearly 10 percent. ''On every level, this project astounds,'' Senator Hillary Clinton said in April, claiming that the mall could make the area a hub for clean technologies and deliver a shot of adrenaline to upstate New York's ailing economy. To help foot the bill for Congel's project, Clinton and other politicians successfully persuaded Congress to provide financial incentives for mega-scale green development projects. (Destiny, of course, will face little competition to reap those benefits.)

An avid Bush supporter who already has 25 shopping malls to his name, Congel himself is not a man you would expect to entertain an eccentric clean-energy vision. It first seized him in 2001, soon after 9/11 -- and after the project was under way -- during a visit to the D-Day beaches in Normandy. ''There I was looking at those pure white graves of tens of thousands of kids that died for freedom,'' Congel reflects, sitting on the veranda of his 6,000-acre farm just outside Syracuse, where he has imported Russian wild boar and other exotic game for hunting. ''Today our kids are dying in a war for oil. Petroleum addiction is destroying our country, our economy, our environment.''

Several months after returning from Normandy, Congel announced that not a drop of fossil fuel would be used in the making of Destiny. Almost overnight the mission of the project changed. It went from the mall that could save the depressed economy of Syracuse to the mall that could save America by establishing a new model for green commercial development. But will shoppers actually want to travel from far and wide to a little-known city's eco-friendly mall? And even with the green tax benefits, it is vastly more expensive to power Destiny with renewable sources than with conventional grid energy -- so where's the financial logic?

Here's where Congel's schemes to create ''monster profits'' come in. Intel, Clear Channel, Cisco, Sony and Microsoft are among the brands that Destiny has recruited to supply its retail, entertainment, security and energy technologies. Many suppliers are planning to build local offices that will aid the Syracuse economy, and all have agreed to participate in the on-site development of new technologies that could be tested on the captive audience of mall-goers. (Congel will be a co-owner of the patents on all inventions.) A group of companies hopes to perfect a new wireless radio frequency identification technology to enable customers to purchase items instantly without waiting in line. The Department of Homeland Security and A.D.T., a home-security company, have discussed testing new devices that will track all visitors entering and leaving the mall.

Some locals, however, question Congel's promises of economic benefits to the region, arguing that Destiny may be an elaborate charade. ''He is legally bound to build only a fraction of the square footage of his plan,'' says John DeFrancisco, a state senator and a leading critic of the mall. ''Congel could reap extraordinary tax benefits without actually meeting his goals. There is no guarantee that won't happen.'' And while many environmentalists embrace Congel's grand ideas, others are skeptical. ''How do you reconcile the glaring paradox of an ostensibly fossil-fuel-free development that requires tremendous amounts of fossil fuels to transport visitors to the site?'' asks Ashok Gupta, an energy economist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Moreover, there is something eerily postmodern, even postenvironmental, about the whole of Congel's project: the mega-mall is located on the fringes of the Adirondacks, but visitors will experience only virtual meadows, faux ponds, a river replica and a five-story imitation of a mountain peak.

While environmentalists are often regarded as doomsayers, Congel is without question an optimist: he is certain that America and its great commercial endeavors can thrive in a post-fossil-fuel era. A similar conviction is represented in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign to put solar installations on a million California rooftops and in the agreement by the mayors of more than 165 American cities to honor the Kyoto Protocol and help develop renewable energy. Although Destiny is still years away from opening, Congel's executives have already held talks with Schwarzenegger about exporting the franchise and have excited interest from developers in England and China. Of course, Destiny's success could be bittersweet to some: if Congel has his way, the road to eco-paradise will not only be paved; it will be glassed-in, climate-controlled and lined with shops.

''This is an absolute, cut-in-granite decision,'' he said. ''One thousand percent.'' He added: ''It will not be built within the city limits. It will be built somewhere else.''

Several nearby states have been courting Mr. Congel, the company official said. If DestiNY USA is not built in the Syracuse area, Mr. Cordeau said, ''We will have missed the biggest opportunity we ever will have.''