Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mattone Group to Manage Atlas Park

By Conor Greene

College-based Mattone Group is taking over the management duties at the Shops at Atlas Park, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions. The decision comes about a month after the Hemmerdinger family, which built the mall on family-owned property, was removed as management team after defaulting on its loan.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Glendale) said she welcomed the news that a local firm would be taking reins at the upscale outdoor shopping center, which has struggled since opening in April 2006. She said she had a brief conversation with Michael Mattone after learning that his firm secured the contract.

“I said to him, ‘Bring us a Target.’ I shop at Target, and my neighbors shop there,” said Crowley, alluding to complaints that the mall doesn’t have stores that appeal to the general population. While the mall might not have a large enough space to accommodate a large big box store, Crowley said she is hopeful that Mattone will bring a new vision to the mall’s management.

“They have practical stores that people in Queens can use,” she said of other area Mattone Group projects. “We can trust that they will work with our community to see that Atlas serves both their concerns and the needs of residents,” she said.

News that Mattone Group is taking control of Atlas Park came after Damon Hemmerdinger, whose family-owned company ATCO Properties developed the mall, announced on January 21 that its French lenders would be appointing a new management team.

French-based lenders Calyon and Societe Generale have declined to comment on the appointment of Mattone Group since word of the deal spread early this week. Calls to the Mattone Group were not returned.

In his January 21 letter to tenants and community leaders, Hemmerdinger, whose father is chairman of the MTA, wrote that, “despite the sluggish economy, traffic on the property was up 30% in 2008, and even held during December, as more people discovered Atlas Park, liked it and returned.” He added that 12 new stores opened last year, and “a number of new stores are forecasted to open in the next six months.”

“ATCO is a solid business, and will continue to operate its other assets, including Atlas Terminals, within the tradition of excellence that we have long upheld,” wrote Hemmerdinger. “ATCO will seek growth opportunities as the economy turns around. Once of these opportunities will be the redevelopment of our remaining properties in Glendale… Our belief in the community remains strong.”

Hemmerdinger noted that the company has “no firm plans for how and when we will proceed” with development of land surrounding the mall, near the intersection of 80th Street and Cooper Avenue. The family still owns about 12 acres there, and some residents have expressed concern over the past year that the family would build a hotel and office space on the land, which is zoned for manufacturing.

Crowley expressed hope that the new firm would eliminate the parking fee, which many residents have complained about. She noted that mall traffic seemed to increase during the weeks last summer when the Hemmerdingers temporarily suspended the fee.

She also said that rents “absolutely” are too high. “The Hemmerdingers know how to run Manhattan high-rise properties,” she said. “They had a lot of bad luck,” including nationwide bankruptcies of tenants including Bombay and Blue Tulip, and the decision by Starbucks to close its Atlas Park location in the coming months. “They don’t have enough diversity and selection, so they don’t have the volume of shoppers,” said Crowley.

She pointed out that stores in a nearby shopping complex along Woodhaven Boulevard near Metropolitan Avenue are doing well, including recently-opened Panera Bread. “They’re opening in the same economy, but they’re opening the right stores,” she said.

Crowley also criticized the MTA for “wasting money” while it has a huge budget gap in order to reroute the Q45 bus to the mall last year, at the urging of the Hemmerdinger family. Many residents opposed the move and said that Dale Hemmerdinger’s involvement with both the MTA and the family-owned mall constituted a conflict of interest.

“It’s a beautiful space, and I would like for it to be developed in the future with the community’s continued input,” said Crowley.

The Mattone Group owns and leases more than 1.5 million square feet of commercial real estate, including the Pathmark Plaza in Springfield Gardens, Jamaica Center, Waterside Estates at Cresthaven in Whitestone and the Embassy Tower building in Manhattan, according to its website.

The firm had entered into discussions with utility company KeySpan in 2003 to build a Home Depot or other large store on the former Elmhurst gas tanks property. However, the city struck a deal with the energy giant to buy the land for $1 after community groups against fought the deal.

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