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The owners aren't pleased it took so long, but a $70 million expansion at Walden Galleria in Cheektowaga got the green light Wednesday from the town's key review committee.

The Environmental Advisory Committee, made up of engineering, building, planning and traffic officials, approved final details and conditions and sent the package on to the Cheektowaga Town Board with a recommendation for approval Monday.

Food, entertainment and covered parking share top billing with new retail space in the mall's expansion plan. Highlights include:

A 611,000-square-foot, three-floor retail wing with an 18-screen cinema complex on the top floor, boosting the mall's size from 1.5 million to about 2.1 million square feet.

Several full-service restaurants and new entertainment venues.

Two five-level parking ramps, linked to the mall by walkways and bridges.

Kenneth D. Cannon, a partner with Pyramid Cos. of Syracuse, which opened the mall in 1989, calls the project "a fine-tuned version" of expansion plans approved by Cheektowaga two years ago.

Asked as he left Wednesday's committee meeting if the project is on schedule for a spring construction start, Cannon said: "I don't know that we're quite on schedule, but I'm certainly glad to get this step behind us. It's taken two months to do something that should have taken about an hour."

But town officials said it took several meetings to win the concessions and commitments the town wanted from Pyramid. And they pointed to the increased emphasis on parking ramps instead of open lots as just one of several circumstances they said have changed since 1998.

"For one thing, we needed the time to wring the fifth lane out of them," remarked William R. Pugh, town engineer and chairman of the Environmental Advisory Committee. Pugh was referring to Pyramid's agreement to build a fifth lane on Galleria Drive, from Union Road to the mall's east loop road.

When the idea of building a new east-west access road to take the pressure off Galleria Drive was discarded, the mall owners agreed to expand the intersection of Galleria and Union to six lanes. For eastbound traffic on Galleria at Union, there will be a right-turn lane, a through-lane to the Union Consumer Square plaza on the other side of Union, and two left-turn lanes.

For traffic entering Galleria Drive from Union, there will be two lanes.

The project is cutting down on the number of driveway openings on Galleria and, instead, linking these businesses to an interior service road connecting to the east loop road, officials said.

Council Member Thomas M. Johnson Jr., the Town Board's development chief, said Pyramid also has agreed to do a follow-up traffic study one year after the expansion is completed.

Plans approved Wednesday also deal with other traffic improvements, traffic signals, signs, berm construction and landscaping in the Nokomis Park area, sidewalk construction, parking ramp architecture and aesthetics.

The Nokomis neighborhood is targeted for considerable landscaping, tree planting and berm construction work to reduce the visual impact of the huge mall, officials said.

The Galleria expansion is scheduled for completion in 2002.

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