Without much effort, Queens Center pulled in $953 a square foot last year — three times the industry average. Its 315-seat food court did more than $10 million in sales, or $32,000 per seat. And that's in a small, dark and dingy space.

How is this possible? Queens Center has the good fortune to be the only major enclosed mall in the borough of Queens — a densely packed county that places 2.2 million consumers with average family incomes of $60,000 within a five-mile radius of the center.

The center was built by Taubman in the 1970s and acquired by Macerich from ShopCo Group and Lehman Bros. in 1997. Now, Santa Monica, Calif.-based Macerich is spending $280 million to update and expand the old structure and leverage the center's enviable position. Communication Arts of Boulder, Col., is the designer of the project, which will retain Macy's and JC Penney as anchors while increasing GLA to 420,000 square feet from today's claustrophobic 135,000. Seating in the food court will triple. Seven skylights will draw in natural light and a new JC Penney will replace the current dowdy store.

The expansion will make room for more inline tenants including H&M and a Steve Madden shoe store, among others. “We just draw a small number of the total population today,” says Ron Bondy, Macerich vice president, leasing. “We will attract more shoppers with more money.”

I took the subway out to Queens to check out how this Pygmalion-like transformation was progressing. It was a lovely Saturday, the first weekend of the Iraq war and I thought this would also be a good way to see how consumer sentiment is holding up. Queens Center was an interesting place to take the pulse of America at war, since the borough has become a magnet for all variety of immigrants — from more than 80 lands.

I talked to some shoppers about their spending plans in these troubled times. Most everybody I talked to seemed determined to maintain a normal routine. After a harsh winter in New York, they were happy to be trying on spring fashions and browsing the home furnishings.

Theresa Waddy (left, top) a medical worker from the nearby Jamaica section of Queens, had dropped in for a makeup consultation at Vera Moore, a specialty retailer scrunched onto level three. Waddy said she was on a budget, but not because of the war: “I'm buying a house,” she explained.

Augusto Torres, a social worker from Sunnyside, Queens, says his family, including daughter Keylah (left, center), ventures out less these days because of threatened terrorist attacks. And he's spending less, because of “difficult economic times ahead.”

Gen Y students Catherine Young and Alison Yee (left, bottom) from another Queens neighborhood, Forest Hills, were eager to get into the Gap, with plans to move on down the aisle to Forever 21. (For more on Gen Y, see page 26.) They said current events didn't factor into their shopping routine.

Experienced Queens Center shoppers said they were undaunted by the construction — the out-of-service down escalators and the scaffolding that occupies the center court, which will disappear when a sunlit atrium opens in the fall. They have adapted. “You start at the bottom and work yourself up,” says Waddy. “Then you just take the elevator down.” These may be captive customers Macerich is betting on (although new competition is popping up in the borough), but they are loyal, too.