Outside the Eastern Hills Mall on a cold Dec. 10 evening, leaves blew ominously through a largely empty parking lot.
Inside, at a time when Christmas shoppers once lined the halls, vacant stores served as a stark reminder to the rapid and irrevocable change in shopping trends that have doomed traditional malls across the country.
Yet at the mall’s food court, well over 100 people packed into the corridor for a glimpse of what could be the future economic trajectory not only of the site, but also for the Town of Clarence, as officials from Uniland Development and Gensler unveiled initial plans for a $250 million project with a working name of “Eastern Hills Town Center.”
With more than 1 million square feet of office space and 1,000 apartments, hotels, movie theatres and concert venues, officials hope that when the 25-year vision has reached fruition, the Eastern Hills Mall site will emerge from its cocoon metamorphosed.
“We’ve been working for more than 12 months to get to this stage today,” said Vice President of Uniland Carl Montante Jr. “This isn’t a traditional real estate project; it’s a commercial development project, an economic development project and a community development project all rolled into one.”
Officials from Uniland Development and Gensler architecture unveiled initial plans for a $250 million project with a working name of “Eastern Hills Town Center,” with more than 1 million square feet of office space and 1,000 apartments, hotels, movie theatres and concert venues. Photo courtesy of Uniland.
Marc Bruffett, principal at Gensler, is a graduate of the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning. When he unveiled preliminary renderings of what the audience might be looking at in 20 years, taken from the perspective of their current vantage point in the food court, he noted that this project was personal for him.
“We’re not creating a new mall. This isn’t about dressing this mall up and having a couple new shops,” he said. “There’s going to be an incredible array of shopping, but the emphasis is on local, unique and ‘experience’ retail.”
Bruffett frequently described the project’s several future phases with words like “re- markable” and “unique,” and when specifics were detailed, they remained mostly ambiguous. The reason, says Bruffett, is because the project is still in its infancy stages and officials are still looking for input from residents and stakeholders as to what the 106-acre site should ultimately be transformed into.
The vision as it exists now includes a slew of market rate apartments and townhomes as well as age-qualified housing for residents 55 and older. Bruffett said that the potential for a 10-story apartment on the campus would be a “great, iconic feature” of the community if implemented.
Several medical offices and co-working spaces are envisioned, in addition to a movie theatre, public spaces, parks and a two-mile walk/bike loop encircling the campus.
Twenty percent of the site will be utilized as public space with greenery. Parking is integrated throughout the campus on surface lots in addition to three parking ramps. Restaurants will have a local emphasis, said Bruffett, adding that the idea is to give the site the infrastructure needed for large-scale events.
“We think this will be home to festivals and community-organized events,” he said. “We’ll have some barns that can be rented out for cultural events.”
As of now, more questions remain than answers as to how the ambitious vision will affect the mall’s 80 current tenants, all of whom will remain open during construction and will continue talks with Uniland as plans move forward.
“We’ve done some studies looking at trying to re-use this mall as much as possible,” Bruffett said. “What’s most likely going to happen is that we’re going to keep all of the two-story spaces and transform all of the one-story space that connects them.”
The project will be developed and designed around a handful of anchor stores, including Raymour & Flanigan and J.C. Penney, each with a long-term lease. The Niagara Emporium antique store will remain as well as the BFLO Store, housed in the former Sears location.
While it remains to be seen how many of the mall’s current tenants will survive the site’s total transformation, Bruffett believes that change is necessary to ensure the mall’s survival.
“Staying the course is not tenable for the businesses that are here,” he said.
A much-needed traffic study is being conducted on the project, and concept plan approval should come in 2020 followed by a 2021 groundbreaking, says Bruffett.
As for the nearly three-decade timeline for the vision to come to fruition, Supervisor Patrick Casilio thinks that might be an overestimation.
He also believes that if Eastern Hills Town Center is implemented successfully as a newly created neighborhood for roughly 3,000 residents, the town might have identified a solution to its residentially skewed tax base in which Clarence homeowners shoulder the tax burden.
“They’re claiming a $250 million impact to the town — I think it’ll be more than that,” said Casilio. “We can really only develop where the sewers are, and the sewers are on Transit Road. Because of the rezoning that the town has done to make that area a ‘living center,’ that will have a major impact on our tax structure.”
Jonathan Bleuer, assistant director of community development for the town, agrees.
He notes that the town went to great lengths during the site’s rezoning process to ensure that the future of the area was not wholly reliant on a residential sector. As a result, the new zoning classification created by the town in 2018 — “lifestyle center district” — codifies that the site can only contain 40 percent of first-floor residential space.
“That was to ensure that the town had a significant component of commercial development, which hopefully will balance out that disparity we have now between residential versus commercial,” he said.
For Casilio, a factor overlooked in the initial excitement of the unveiling is the project’s potentially dramatic effect on the Clarence Central School District, which he estimates could represent an additional $3.5 million of revenue per year for the town’s schools.
But before that revenue begins to flow toward the town, the project must first attract residents to inhabit it.
“Hopefully, people will start out there [Town Center] and will find a home in Clarence. Then perhaps they’ll return in their senior years to live there,” he said. “Senior living, condo and patio homes are sold out as fast as we can get the roads in. I know that part of that project will go quickly.”