The Mall That Would Save America
July 3, 2005
THE WAY WE LIVE NOW
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
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
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.''