NEW YORK — The Queens Center, among the nation’s most productive malls, yet dubiously dubbed the “blue bomb” for its drab design inside and out, is close to unveiling a $275 million overhaul and expansion.

Store previews commence March 26 and a ribbon-cutting is set for the next day.

The Macerich Co., which owns the center, started the redevelopment in the summer of 2002 after sensing an inner-city hunger for a higher-grade retail experience and being encouraged by key tenants, such as Macy’s, J.C. Penney and Gap — all of which wanted more space to maximize sales.

The four-level center has added a new wing and grows to 1 million square feet from 620,000 square feet. The specialty store count increases to 175 from 69; a new food court will offer 14 eateries and triple the seating capacity, to 900; Penney’s relocates and grows to 200,000 square feet from 137,000, and Macy’s adds an entire level and grows to 356,719 square feet from around 300,000. It’s the third largest unit in Macy’s East, next to the Herald Square flagship and the Roosevelt Field unit on Long Island.

A children’s play area also is being set up, and a 794-vehicle parking facility has been added, for a total of 1,903 parking spots. The mall’s employee count rises to 3,000 from 1,700.

New tenants include Coach, Guess, Benetton, Swatch, American Eagle Outfitters, Casual Corner, Express and Timberland.

Among existing stores that are relocating in the mall or expanding are Hennes & Mauritz, Victoria’s Secret, Zales Jewelers, Aldo, Steve Madden and a trio of Foot Locker family stores.

“The Queens Center is being transformed into a first-class suburban mall in an urban environment,” said John M. Genovese, senior vice president of real estate services, during a tour of the site.

He’s in charge of all redevelopment, renovation and construction work, tenant coordination and environmental activities for Macerich, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based real estate investment trust, which has 11 other overhauls in the works around the country.

According to Genovese, however, “this is the largest project we’ve undertaken.”Genovese is also the company’s link to the communities where Macerich malls operate. He said he worked closely with city and local officials and neighborhood groups to ease traffic and environmental concerns before construction began. The close cooperation led to the building of a community room in the mall, translators for customers, family bathrooms and other amenities, as well as an unusual marketing campaign, “grow your own way,” with advertising in which local residents appear. The Queens Center held an open casting call to find the faces and personalities that best represent the borough. Also, 12 self-portraits by schoolchildren will adorn tabletops in the food court, which is being called The World’s Fare Cafes, reflecting the international complexion of the area.

“We believe in developing properties into not only being the economic engines for the community, but also becoming town halls,” Genovese said.

Despite its dated interiors and discouraging dark blue exterior, the 27-year-old Queens Center has long drawn a huge crowd — it’s up to 21 million visits a year. But that’s partly because outside Manhattan, the city doesn’t have many decent major shopping venues. Although the nation is considered overstored, New York City’s outer boroughs are considered retail-challenged. Historically, better brands and national brands have stuck to Manhattan, and then leapfrogged to the suburbs when they were ready to expand.

As Genovese noted, other cities around the country have more malls. In San Diego, for example, where there are also more than 2 million people, there are 10 enclosed regional shopping centers, Genovese said. There are only two other enclosed traditional malls in New York City, Kings Plaza in Brooklyn and the Staten Island Mall, but Queens Center is becoming the one with the upscale look. The center certainly isn’t going luxury, but it is bringing in some higher-quality brands, such as Guess and Coach. Genovese said the mall is 93 percent leased. Gap is adding some of its brands, such as Gap Body, to the mall mix.

Queens Center, located at the intersection of Queens and Woodhaven Boulevards in Elmhurst, is ranked among the top 10 highest sales-producing malls in the country. In 2002, it posted $953 in sales per square foot, up from $623 in 1995, according to the company.The center draws from a 5-mile radius in the ethnically diverse borough of Queens, which has a population exceeding 2 million and where more than 30 languages are spoken. Aside from the new wing, the most dramatic addition to the Queens Center is an unusual 186-foot-long by 86-foot-wide, two-level bridge connecting the old and new wings, rising above 92nd Street. The bridge provides coverage for those entering the mall, and also drop-off lanes. Genovese said the two wings are “seamlessly” linked with a stone and granite exterior, and inside, by huge skylights, ceramic tile, stone floors, warm tones and carpeted seating areas. “The blue brick is going away,” he said, with a sense of relief.

The Macerich Co. mission has been to buy retail properties and figure out ways to make them better, through either expansions, renovations, adding anchors or changing marketing strategies, rather than building from scratch. But last year, the company purchased another developer, Westcor, which does development from the ground up. Macerich controls 60 million square feet of property in 59 malls, which, in 2002, generated an average of $355 in sales per square foot.

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