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WALDEN GALLERIA PLANS AMBITIOUS EXPANSION
RESTAURANTS, THEATERS PART OF NEW ADDITION

The region's largest and most popular shopping destination is preparing to add "dining and entertainment hot spot" to its resume.

The Walden Galleria in Cheektowaga is expected soon to unveil an ambitious expansion -- with a price topping $50 million -- to make room for a stable of upscale national restaurants that includes Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, Cheesecake Factory and Abuelo's Mexican Food Embassy.

The mall's venture will include a state-of-the-art, 18-screen cinema complex, plus other new tenants offering an array of activities such as pool and arcade games.

A new parking deck is also part of the project.

Syracuse-based Pyramid Cos., which owns Western New York's largest retail complex, has been contemplating a major expansion since 1998. The developer filed a revised blueprint in 2000 that called for a 650,000-square-foot, tri-level addition, which also focused on food and fun, but those plans never became reality.

A fresh proposal, which is expected to be made public in the next few weeks, would see a two-story addition on the southeast side of the mall.

The new wing, which will be easily visible from the Thruway, will have a facade that resembles a village streetscape. This design will give patrons direct access to the restaurants and offer outdoor dining options, and is in keeping with a national trend to add "lifestyle center" elements to traditional enclosed malls.

Galleria General Manager James L. Soos declined to comment on the expected proposal, but has reiterated Pyramid's interest in expanding the Galleria over the past five years.

Cheektowaga Supervisor Dennis H. Gabryszak confirmed he's talked with Pyramid about expansion plans, but declined to reveal specifics.

"It's going to be unlike anything we've seen in this area when it comes to retail construction," Gabryszak said. "It's going to be dynamic architecture. It will not look like the exterior of a mall."

Creating a cluster of high-profile food and entertainment tenants fits with a national trend among newer and larger malls, said Patrice Duker, spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

"It's certainly something we've seen over the past couple of years. A solid offering of dining and entertainment adds to the overall draw of the center. It allows a mall to be more things to more people," Duker said.

She noted that Cheesecake Factory is one of the country's hottest restaurant tenants.

"They are definitely a coveted tenant because there aren't very many of them out there and they do great numbers, averaging about $1,000 a square foot in sales (per year)," she added.

A typical regional mall tenant's sales averaged $366 per square foot per year in 2005.

This would be the first upstate New York location for the California restaurant chain, which operates 92 eateries.

Its 200-item, book-like menus include items ranging from sandwiches and salads to steaks and seafood, as well as its trademark cheesecake selections.

Ruth's Chris Steakhouse is a nationally acclaimed purveyor of the traditional steak dinner, plus other comfort foods. The Louisiana chain of 85 upscale restaurants in 30 states and Canada includes two restaurants in the New York City area and one in suburban Toronto.

Abuelo's restaurant would be the first in New York for the chain, which currently operates 18 sites and plans to add seven more in 2005. The Texas company, whose name means "grandfather" in Spanish, specializes in the cuisine of the Mexican interior. Prices at the casual restaurant range from $10 to $15.

Gabryszak said Pyramid has been quietly reworking the expansion plans it submitted in 2000.

"They have taken their time, but it will be worth the wait," Gabryszak said. "This is going to give people a whole new reason to go to the Galleria. It's still going to be the area's top shopping destination, but now people will go there for great food, too."

At a current 1.6 million square feet, the Galleria is the area's largest mall, attracting more than 19 million visitors a year to its 200-plus tenants.

While other Buffalo area malls have upgraded their facilities to compete with the Cheektowaga retail center, the Galleria has maintained its edge with several singular stores, such as Lord & Taylor, Apple Computer, Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma, Ann Taylor and Steve and Barry's University Sportswear.

Opened in 1989, the Galleria has undergone five physical expansions, the most recent being the construction of an 80,000-square-foot, two-story Galyan's store in 2000. That store was recently converted to a Dick's Sporting Goods.

The developer built a 600-vehicle parking garage in 1992.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com