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Overhaul of Northtown Plaza into 'open-air lifestyle center' to begin soon

The owner of the Northtown Plaza expects to start work in the coming months on its ambitious plans to transform the Amherst center into an upscale shopping destination that would include L.L.Bean, Williams-Sonoma and West Elm.

Documents filed with the town Planning Department show WS Development in May would begin tearing down the existing buildings on the 19-acre site, with construction on the new retail buildings starting soon after and wrapping up in October 2019. Sean Hopkins, the attorney representing WS Development, said it's more realistic to say work would begin this summer and conclude by the end of 2019.

WS Development proposes constructing six new retail buildings, although the company so far has confirmed only a handful of the businesses that will open in the new-look plaza. The company also plans to create a common green where shoppers can do yoga, watch movies and ice skate.

The Northtown Plaza redevelopment could offer steep competition for the Boulevard Mall, Walden Galleria and other traditional malls. The tenants that WS Development has announced to date either are new to the Buffalo market or will move into the Northtown Plaza from another area shopping center. The developer also hopes to attract prominent local retailers and restaurants.

Massachusetts-based WS Development bought the Northtown Plaza, on Sheridan Drive just east of Niagara Falls Boulevard, in 2015 for $18.5 million and has spent the years since preparing for an estimated $75 million transformation of the 66-year-old shopping center.

See the Northtown Plaza developer's plan for 'open-air lifestyle center'

The company brought in the area's first Whole Foods Market, which opened in September on the site of a former Bon-Ton department store. But the past few years primarily have seen the flight of Northtown Plaza retailers that didn't fit with the company's vision for the "open-air lifestyle center" it plans to construct there.

Today, all that remains is a Dunn Tire, which has found a new location farther east on Sheridan Drive, and a Treats Unleashed pet store that was in negotiations to stay in the plaza following the redevelopment.

The Amherst Planning Board is set to review the project site plan at its April 19 meeting. That is the last major approval required from the town, after the Zoning Board of Appeals in December granted WS Development all nine of the area variances the company had requested. The developer is working to address sanitary sewer issues to the town's satisfaction.

WS Development's plans filed with the town show the company would tear down two, low-slung retail buildings that dominate the site as well as the Dunn Tire building and the former Total Automotive building that sit on the western edge of the property. The demolition includes 145,294 square feet of single-story storefronts and 20,500 square feet of basement space.

The plans show WS Development, for now, would preserve a former KeyBank building that sat next to the former Payless ShoeSource store. That bank branch was owned separately from the rest of the plaza, but WS Development acquired the building from KeyBank last week. Brian T. Sciera, WS Development's senior vice president for leasing, said in an email Tuesday morning that the company now intends to incorporate the in-line bank branch into one of the new retail buildings.

WS Development takes control of Northtown Plaza site by buying former KeyBank branch

WS Development would construct the six new retail buildings on the outer edges of the property, wrapping around a central parking area and a common green that would be open for activities year-round. The five, single-story buildings and one two-story building would have a total of 187,210 square feet of leasable area. Work is likely to begin in phases, Hopkins said.

Additional construction includes parking lots, access drives, utility connections, storm-water management, landscaping and lighting.

Engineering firm Fisher Associates of Rochester conducted a traffic impact study on WS Development's behalf that found, once it opens, "the proposed Nothtown Plaza redevelopment project will have minimal effect on the adjacent transportation network with slight increases in delay at the study intersections that will likely be imperceptible to the average driver."

Northtown has announced that, aside from Whole Foods, the retailers L.L.Bean, Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma and West Elm and the restaurant chain B.Good will open in the plaza. Sciera said leasing is going well and WS Development will announce additional tenants when those companies grant permission to do so.

"The mix of tenants we are putting together is very exciting and of-the-day. We look forward to sharing this in the future," Sciera said in an email.

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