They come bearing gifts: Political donations, media advertising, and promises of construction and retail jobs. They win the assent of local governments, the backing of banks, the vigorous support of unions, and they totally transform communities, even entire regions, by disrupting the local environment and traditional commerce. Even if the majority of citizens of a particular locale oppose them, there’s usually little these citizens can do.
Of course, it’s all perfectly legal.
“They” are mall developers. And the biggest mall developer in the Northeast is Pyramid Management Group, aka The Pyramid Companies, based just down the New York State Thruway in Syracuse. Lifelong or longtime residents of the Capital Region know Pyramid’s M.O. well from the contentious political process that resulted in the construction of Guilderland’s Crossgates Mall, which in opened 1984. The documentary Megamall, which was directed by Sarah Mondale, Vera Aronow and Roger Grange (and will be screened at the Spectrum on Nov. 3), covers the subsequent development and construction of another Pyramid project, the Palisades Center. Located in the little suburban community of West Nyack, which is in the smallest county in the state of New York, Rockland, the Palisades Center is a shopping monster.
Pyramid got the ball rolling on the Palisades Center in the mid-1980s; Megamall covers this preliminary period through archival footage. The filmmakers started actively chronicling the story in the 1990s, when construction began, and meticulously cover the increasingly adversarial relationship between Pyramid and the grassroots opposition that was generated in Rockland County.
Reached by telephone, filmmakers Sarah Mondale and Vera Aronow—Roger Grange was away—remembered the beginning of the process.
“We got into it because the whole issue heated up in 1996,” Mondale said.
“They’d already broken ground, it was not just something on paper anymore,” Aronow added.
Mondale explained: “It would have been the second biggest mall in America, in the smallest county in New York state.”
Did they ever think that opponents would stop construction?
“I don’t think we thought it would be stopped,” Aronow said, but pointed out something that the film shows very well. There were legal grounds to derail the project. Pyramid is wily, however, and they come equipped with superb lawyers and deep pockets.
The film also examines at the effect of dropping a “megamall” into a region: What happens to local downtowns and existing shopping centers and malls?
Aronow noted that many of the village centers took a hit; even those that survived were changed: “Nyack is a lively place, with restaurants, bars and boutiques, but it lost a lot of the normal, basic retail.”
To speak to the cultural implications, the filmmakers brought in nationally known urbanism expert (and Saratoga Springs resident) James Howard Kunstler, and he makes his excellent points in his usual style.
In this era of Occupy Everything, however, some of the best moments in the film show the activism that grew up in opposition to Pyramid. Just as Pyramid changed the physical landscape, their actions caused a reaction that changed Rockland’s political landscape.
“We didn’t set out to make an anti-mall film,” Mondale said. “But as the process went on. . . .”
Megamall will be screened at 6:30 PM on Nov. 3 at the Spectrum 8 Theatres (290 Delaware Ave., Albany). The filmmakers will be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A. For more info, call 449-8995.