The goal of transforming the Eastern Hills Mall into a town center brings to mind a quotation from 19th century Chicago architect Daniel Burnham: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

The plan to spend $250 million to transform the 100-acre shopping mall site into a self-contained village is anything but little. Uniland Development, Mountain Development and the architect design firm Gensler spelled out their vision in a presentation last week.

Eastern Hill Town Center would contain market-rate apartments, townhomes and senior housing, office space, hotels, public gathering spaces and other recreational and cultural amenities.

It’s called high-density mixed-use development and it has worked elsewhere in the U.S. Some well-known examples are Crocker Park in Cleveland; Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio; The Grove in Los Angeles; Zona Rosa in Kansas City, Mo.; Bowie Town Center in Bowie, Md.; and City Place in Palm Beach, Fla.

We’ll have what they’re having, at least if the developers can obtain the needed financing.

The development companies’ research shows there is enough demand here to make a go of it. Part of the idea is to turn a lemon – the retail downturn that robbed the current mall of much of its vitality – into lemonade, a new kind of shopping and lifestyle experience. Rather than tearing down the mall and starting from scratch, the plans call for keeping several of the anchor tenants, such as Raymour & Flanigan and J.C. Penney, and working with many of the other retailers to see if they can make it work under the new concept.

While the developers hope to break ground in 2021, the completion of the town center could take 25 years, they say. Today’s 5-year-olds may be tomorrow’s tenants. And several aspects of the plan are designed with millennials and Generation-Z sensibilities in mind. Walkability is one selling point, appealing to individuals who want to stay active as well as those concerned about reducing their carbon footprints. Cycling trails are also in the plan.

Younger people often talk about wanting a sense of belonging and community, which is a reason that town centers include public gathering spots. Events such as Fourth of July concerts, Christmas tree lightings, or art and music festivals would bring people together in the plazas.

Residents and visitors of all ages would be welcome, of course. Empty-nesters and other adults looking to downsize are one of the population segments most likely to move to cities these days. They would be prime candidates for Eastern Hills’ suburban version of an urban village.
Senior housing is another part of the planners’ vision. The developers are said to be looking to partner with companies that specialize in 55-plus communities, as well as engaging health care providers.

Will winter weather deter visitors, once the outdoor green spaces turn to white spaces? That has not been the case at Crocker Park, near Cleveland, where hundreds of shoppers stroll past a 50-foot Christmas tree and assorted lights and decorations.

One question that the financiers will pose is whether a town center can attract enough people in a region with a stagnant economy. But the uniqueness of the project would help it draw visitors from miles around, the way that water parks and carnival grounds do in other cities.

Village centers have been called the future of retailing. We look forward to experiencing it in Clarence.