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Boulevard Mall faces an uphill battle amid shifting trends in shopping

Boulevard Mall shoppers are still mourning the loss of their food court.

Even as stores struggle to attract customers, the high-ceilinged, skylit space drew young families to the mall in droves. They came to eat dinner, play on the playground, ride the carousel, eat cotton candy, then make their way into the mall to shop.

When the mall announced it would raze the food court in favor of a Dick’s Sporting Goods store, some shoppers were shocked, upset, then angry. They begged the mall to reconsider.

Then, the mall announced it would retire its beloved but broken-down Boulevard Bear Band, which sang in the mall each Easter and Christmas.

With surprising vitriol, angry shoppers vowed on social media never to shop the mall again.

Now, with traffic down, vacancy rates up and the mall listed for sale, a lot of disgruntled Boulevard Mall shoppers have one thing to say:

We told you so.

Boulevard Mall is feeling the pinch, but it’s not all because of a supposed boycott or the loss of a few animatronic bears. It is facing the same serious challenges as every other small, regional mall in America: the internet and a shift toward open-air shopping centers.

“It’s clear they’re hurting,” said Charles Lindsey, a marketing professor at the University at Buffalo School of Management. Of the changes that have occurred there, he said: “It adds insult to injury. You have this enclosed space losing a lot of the benefits people expect when they go to a mall and that’s a real poisonous combination.”

The changes were made to address other issues: high food court vacancy rates, a national consumer shift away from food courts and the need for the strong lease Dick’s could provide.

Still, for some Western New Yorkers, the end of the food court was a watershed moment.

Janet Sharp has not visited the mall since the food court was demolished last year. It’s not that she’s trying to boycott the mall; she’s found she just doesn’t need to go there.

“My kids don’t like shopping so there is no reason to haul them there,” she said.

The food court wasn’t built until 1994, meaning the mall has existed longer without it than it has with it. And the mall still has restaurants – including its popular Taste of China – they’re just scattered throughout the mall.

But there’s something to the criticism. You can feel the void the food court has left. Its southern end – where those airy corridors and vaulted skylights used to be – feels truncated and confined. The rest of the mall feels smaller and less bright somehow, too, despite sprawling nearly a million square feet and being lit naturally throughout from overhead windows.

The mall has suffered noticeable losses, retailers said, and seen a marked downturn in both traffic and sales since the food court closed.

At times when you expect crowds and noise, the mall is quiet, almost muffled. It’s easy to find parking, there are no crowds to fight and there is hardly ever a line at the register. That’s great if you’re a shopper, not so great if you’re a retailer relying on the hustle and bustle to make a living. The quiet could be what helped drive out Foot Locker, Hollister, Aeropostale, the Bootery, Yankee Candle, Yogen Fruz and Sweet Melody’s in recent months. Some of those stores are still empty, with gates pulled down over dark store fronts.

Food court epic aside, and notwithstanding the plight of regional malls in general, the Boulevard faces challenges that other local malls do not.

Boulevard is beset on all sides by open-air plazas – the kind shoppers increasingly prefer to enclosed malls – including the Whole Foods plaza on Sheridan Drive to the south and The Boulevard on Niagara Falls Boulevard to the north. Each of those powerful plazas actively lures Boulevard Mall’s tenants out of their leases at the mall.

The mall recently lost Yankee Candle to The Boulevard, a shopping center owned by Benderson Development formerly called Boulevard Consumer Square. But that’s nothing compared to what WS Development has in store for the former Northtown Plaza: Development plans there would gut the mall of several important stores, including Loft, Justice, Hallmark, Banana Republic, Victoria’s Secret, the Gap, Lids, Justice, Claire’s Boutique and Gymboree. It’s very much what Walden Galleria did to the Summit Park Mall when it opened.

WS can offer tenants competitive rates in a brand new property with beautiful new build-outs; it should have no problem poaching whoever it wants.

Tenants might consider jumping ship under the best of circumstances. With the mall for sale and trends pointing in the wrong direction, uneasy, established tenants might decide not to renew leases, while prospective tenants may be too skittish to invest in long-term ones.

That environment has likely led the mall to make deals in order to keep its stores filled. You’ll see it when you walk the corridors. Tenants that would normally occupy a kiosk in the mall – such as McNerney’s Irish Imports and T-shirt store Same Day Custom – have been upgraded to in-line stores, where national stores like Hollister usually go. The stores often have less attractive signage, build-outs, merchandising or decor.

It’s the sort of thing that has visitors making not-so-happy comparisons.

“It reminds me of the Summit Park Mall before it closed,” said Jessica Prokop of the former shopping center in Wheatfield. “It’s the same sad, second-rate stores.”

But keeping those stores filled, with the lights on and the gates up, is important – as much for rent revenue as for appearances’ sake.

Boulevard Mall is a prime piece of real estate. It’s on a highly visible corner at Maple Road and Niagara Falls Boulevard and is surrounded by 140,000 households making $67,000 annually.

While other malls go to great lengths to get University at Buffalo students in their doors – arranging buses and offering special promotions – Boulevard has the University at Buffalo right at its doorstep. The college puts 29,000 students and 167,000 workers within walking distance. The mall also has traffic signals with lanes turning into the mall – an important factor for retailers, since it gets consumers easy, safe access to their stores. More than 73,000 cars pass the mall every day.

All those statistics put the mall in a desirable position for redevelopment. But the mall’s fans may not be happy to know that a redevelopment solution could put an end to Western New York’s oldest enclosed mall as they know it. To get the best return on investment, a new buyer could bulldoze the property (or parts of it) and turn it into a traditional open-air plaza with big box stores, like The Boulevard. The mall already would be off to a good start with its first real big box store, Dick’s Sporting Goods. Or it could take a page out of McKinley Mall’s book, preserving the enclosed mall and revamping the exterior to mimic a traditional plaza. McKinley did that by presenting Ulta Beauty, Best Buy, and Bed, Bath and Beyond storefronts onto McKinley Parkway. Boulevard has a head start in that direction with Michael’s and Buy Buy Baby.

If Boulevard decides to stay enclosed, it needs a draw. Without a movie theater, or many destination stores or restaurants, the food court was Boulevard’s last real draw to the mall, as tenuous as it was. When you can buy everything you need online, you’ve got to lure customers in with restaurants and entertainment. Galleria has done it with its restaurant row, Billy Beez kids playground and Dave & Buster’s arcade. Eastern Hills Mall has done it with its Rocky’s Big City Games and Sports Bar, Sports Performance Park and its mix of local and national food. The mall could go back to its roots, perhaps with a retro Suburban Lanes bowling alley, an Aladdin’s Castle arcade or a throwback Boulevard Mall cinema.

Either way, remaining as is – even with revamped restaurant and entertainment options – is going to be an uphill battle.

Lindsey from UB suggests retrofitting the mall to have at least some parts that are open air. He said the new owner will have to do something to make the mall special.

“If a mall’s going to buck that trend, it’s going to have to be state of the art like the Galleria,” he said. “Or else it’s gonna be tough.”


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