Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mall Struggles to Catch On: Owner Says Atlas Park's Growing Pains are Normal by Nicholas Hirshon - NY Daily News

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Damon Hemmerdinger, co-owner of Glendale’s Shops at Atlas Park (inset), says the shopping center is 'still building our brand.' The mall opened in 2006. Noonan for News

From its inception, the Shops at Atlas Park mall has been a blend of opposing extremes.

The manicured outdoor retail center in Glendale was once a gritty industrial park. Opening upscale shops in a blue-collar neighborhood has been praised as enterprising and jeered as unrealistic.

It's a center of either suburban bliss or inflated expectations - depending on whom you ask - as it enters the crucial holiday shopping season and nears its third anniversary in April.

Since opening in 2006, the mall at 80th St. and Cooper Ave. has elicited both praise and criticism as an ambitious complex anchored by a movie theater, eight restaurants and more than a dozen clothing stores.

"We have growing pains that are very consistent with new shopping centers," said Damon Hemmerdinger, the mall's co-owner and development director. "We're still building our brand."

Some retail experts expressed doubt that Hemmerdinger's focus - targeting a key 18 to 35-year-old female demographic, with a niche for "mature women" up to age 55 - would work long term.

Former Crain's New York Business writer Leslie Jay, who covered the planning of Atlas Park in 2000, said she remembered wondering if it would appeal to southwestern Queens.

"I just didn't know if the immediate neighborhood was up for a fancy mall," Jay said, adding the complex still isn't "the first mall you go to on Black Friday."

But Paul Barchitta, a retail marketing professor at Queensborough Community College, said the Glendale mall has a key edge even in a bleak economy.

"If they were opening today, brand-new, they would certainly have a harder time finding success," he said. "At least they've gotten the first year or two under their belt."

Atlas Park storeowners focused largely on the positives.

"Weekdays are a little slow, but on the weekends it's packed," said Henry Fernandez, 32, who opened a Simply Fondue restaurant at the mall last month.

Teri Basile said she moved her framing shop, Art World, from Austin St. in Forest Hills to Atlas Park last year because the Glendale center has a "magical feel."

"You come to work every day and you feel good about being here," said Basile, 54.

Not every tenant shares that enthusiasm.

Starbucks said in July it will shutter its Atlas Park coffee shop and 10 other city outlets.

Reports that a Chili's Grill & Bar persistently leaks liquids into a Borders bookstore downstairs are backed up by scores of water-stained or missing ceiling panels.

Storeowners and employees who asked to remain anonymous griped that Hemmerdinger charges outlandishly high rents and issues steep penalties to shops that open later than scheduled.

Hemmerdinger said rents and penalties are consistent with those at other shopping centers.

"That's not the criteria I'd use to say whether we have a good relationship," he said.

Perhaps the truest indicator of Atlas Park's success is its customers, who frequent the theater and eateries but often bypass stores.

"It's good if you want to see a movie, but not to shop," said Tyrone Casey, 18, of Jamaica, as he roamed Atlas Park last week.

"They just need more stores," said his pal, Chaz Fraser, 28, who lives a block from the mall.

"Stores people go to," Casey quipped.

But coming soon are a Republic of Couture apparel boutique and a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, Hemmerdinger said.