Uniland Development Corp., one of the region's biggest commercial real estate firms, is negotiating with the owner of the Eastern Hills Mall about taking an investment stake in the Clarence retail center as part of a potential redevelopment.
L. Robert Lieb, chairman and CEO of Mountain Development Corp., confirmed that his company is talking to the Amherst-based developer, but would not provide specifics about the negotiations or the size of the potential investment.
"Those are very preliminary discussions," he said. "We are talking with them ... Hopefully, we will have some positive news in the near future."
Jill Pawlik, spokeswoman for Uniland, declined to comment, referring questions to Mountain of Woodland Park, N.J.
Opened in 1971 and owned by Ohio-based Edward J. DeBartolo Corp., Eastern Hills occupies more than 1.2 million square feet of space, with 966,691 square feet available for lease. It was long considered a premier shopping destinations when it was filled with national chains and anchored by Wm. Hengerer's and Sibley's, but was later exceeded by the much larger Walden Galleria.
More recently, it was anchored by Macy's, Bon-Ton, Sears, JC Penney and Dave & Buster's, with over 83 stores in all. But Macy's and Dave & Buster's have since closed, while Sears continues to struggle and Bon-Ton filed for bankruptcy last week.
Mountain Development, which has owned the Transit Road mall since 2003, has been talking about transforming the 47-year-old mall into a destination-oriented, mixed-use "lifestyle center" that would include a significant portion of residential space.
To do so, though, it needs both cash and expertise from real estate or other investors that could make the venture successful.
The firm hired real estate brokerage Cushman & Wakefield and its Buffalo-area affiliate, Pyramid Brokerage Co., to seek out potential partners.
"There are many outstanding local developers, and we've spoken to a bunch of them," Lieb said. "The result is that we made a decision to talk to somebody."
The news comes as the Clarence Town Board considers changing the zoning of the region's No. 2 mall to a "lifestyle center district," which would allow a wider variety of uses at the property and would facilitate the envisioned transformation.
Clarence Supervisor Patrick W. Casilio said he had recommended Uniland, among other local developers, as a potential partner for Mountain Development.
"When I met with Mountain Development almost a year ago (Uniland) was one of the names I offered for them to partner with," said Casilio. "Mountain Development handles commercial buildings and they felt they were weak with residential developments so they were looking for a local partner."
He said he also offered other are developers to partner with, such as Ciminelli Real Estate and Benderson Development Co..
Casilio said the town recently created the Lifestyle Zoning Code, which is an overlay district that includes a mix of business and residential, but before any plan goes forward there would have to be a request for a zoning change. The idea is to 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 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.
Director of Community Development James B. Callahan said the town does not have any plans on the table, but he said he will be sitting down with the Town Board at its work session on Wednesday to discuss strategies and then talk to Mountain Development about joint ventures.
"We haven't met with them yet," said Callahan of Mountain Development. "But we'd like to talk to them about rezoning their property and see if they will work with us."
Mountain Development has supported the town’s plan for a Lifestyle Center zone. It had been seeking other real estate development and investment partners that could bring both cash and expertise to the table, attempting to convert the sprawling mall into a town center with housing and a hotel.
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 see in Clarence.
Chuck Breidenbach, managing director of Mountain Development's retail properties group, spoke to the Town Board last month and said the new zoning could lead to a $300 million investment at the mall location. But he also asked for more refinement and less restrictions in the zoning designation.
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 sales dealerships. Instead of large, open parking lots, the zoning also encourages gathering spaces, parking throughout the site, landscaping and pedestrian- and bike-friendly areas.