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Clarence says zoning change can help transform Eastern Hills Mall, other sites

The Town of Clarence has created a new zoning designation that will encourage developers to repurpose sprawling indoor malls such as the Eastern Hills Mall into town centers with smaller, upscale shops in a walkable community with new housing.

The concept, called Lifestyle Center Districts, is designed to promote planned developments that could include upscale shopping, hotels, entertainment and restaurants, along with townhouses or housing in mixed-use buildings, and green spaces. Big box stores, self-storage facilities, dog kennels and single-family homes could not be part of the planned developments under the town's code.

Town Supervisor Patrick Casilio said as many as 10,000 people could live in these new areas.

Casilio unveiled the town's recently adopted Lifestyle Center District zoning classification recently during his State of the Town address to the Clarence Chamber of Commerce. The town passed the zoning amendment following a public hearing Jan. 17.

Casilio said the Eastern Hills Mall site would be ideal for a Lifestyle Center, but noted that these "overlay districts" can be encouraged at other sites, such as the Transitown Plaza.

Eastern Hills Mall owner seeks partner or may consider sale if price is right

He said the town it's not trying to close existing stores, but hoping to make smaller stores more viable. Casilio said existing businesses could be grandfathered into any Lifestyle Center zones.

Director of Community Development James B. Callahan said the Lifestyle Center District allows for "great flexibility." He said fifth-year architecture students from Alfred State University developed an idealized "future look" of what the Eastern Hills Mall could be with a model that integrated existing stores such as J.C. Penney and Bon-Ton.

Casilio explained that Clarence's plan for a Lifestyle Center zone is one of Western New York's first, and it was specifically designed by the town's planning board to encourage this type of development at Main Street and Transit Road, where utilities are already in place and there is easy access to the Thruway and the airport.

"The most important and valuable address Clarence has is Main and Transit," said Casilio. In addition to Eastern Hills Mall, that intersection is where Transitown Plaza and dozens of restaurants, smaller plazas and car dealerships are located.

Mountain Development Corp., which owns the 1970s-era Eastern Hills Mall, has supported the town's plan for a Lifestyle Center zone. When the Eastern Hills Mall opened in 1971 under the ownership of Ohio-based Edward J. DeBartolo Corp., it was filled with national chains and was considered one of the premier shopping center destinations. But by the early 2000s, the Eastern Hills Mall was failing and largely empty.

New Jersey-based Mountain Development Corp. stepped in to buy the mall in 2003 for a bargain price of $17.1 million. Now Mountain Development is seeking other real estate development and investment partners that could bring both cash and expertise to the table, attempting to covert the sprawling mall into a town center with housing and a hotel.

The Eastern Hills Mall looks to a promising future

A similar transformation happened at Crocker Park Lifestyle Center near Cleveland and town officials have held up this type of development as an ideal they would like to achieve in Clarence. 

Chuck Briedenbach, of Mountain Development, spoke to the Town Board last week and agreed that this new zoning could easily result in a $300 million investment at the Eastern Hills Mall location, but he asked for more refinement and less restrictions in the zoning designation.

"I've think it's wonderful," said Briedenbach of the Lifestyle Center zoning after the town board adopted the plan, but cautioned that he has seen both successful ones and unsuccessful ones.

The restrictions attempt to make the area more walkable by eliminating box stores, drive-thrus, storage-rental facilities and outdoor storage of vehicles at auto dealerships. Also instead of large open parking lots, the zoning encourages gathering spaces, parking throughout the site, landscaping, and pedestrian and bike-friendly areas.

Callahan told the Chamber of Commerce that the code is a "look to the future" which encourages a walkable community, alternative transportation modes, green energy and a mix of commercial and residential uses.

But Callahan said the zoning will also give the town the flexibility to work with land owners on the design.

He said they are looking forward to working with the owners of the Eastern Hills Mall on this type of development.

"I think this is something that will be great for all of us," said Callahan.

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