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Skeletons of suburbia haunt us all

These aren't grand old beloved structures, like the Statler or the Central Terminal, with dedicated preservationists committed to ensuring their historical value gets saved.

They weren't particularly attractive buildings when they went up, and they're downright ugly as they sit empty. At just 15 or 20 years old, their historical value amounts to zilch.

But there they are, their signs long gone -- only telltale hints of their brands still on display. The outline of names such as Vix or Ames. The outdated blue-and-red colors of mid-'90s Walmarts.

They're the places where we bought toothpaste and toilet paper and televisions. Now, they're the skeletons of suburbia. Buildings, tossed aside, replaced by bigger and brighter outlets.

Dozens have gathered with excitement in recent weeks in the cold, empty towers of our past to mark steps forward toward saving the city's historic structures. A master plan is in place for the Central Terminal. The Statler Towers is in new hands.

But what about our empty structures of the present? The ones we're still building today?

Often, the neighbors see what's coming. They sense before a shovel goes in the ground that it won't be but a decade or two before they're staring at an empty building.

Tom Zimmerman knew it would happen. He and three other Hamburg residents filed a lawsuit in 1995 in an attempt to stop Walmart from constructing a store at McKinley Parkway and Big Tree Road.

They were concerned about traffic. They were mad they were never notified that the wooded land was rezoned to commercial. They feared the building would one day go dark.

So they pooled their money and hired a lawyer, but the effort wasn't bound to go far. Zimmerman recalls their first day in court. A team of lawyers, he said, sat on the Walmart side. Their attorney sat alone.

"The David and Goliath aspect of it gained us a lot of publicity," Zimmerman said last week. Residents gathered at town meetings to oppose the project. One raised the concern: "If we don't stop and think, we're going to have another empty monster."

The store opened its doors a little more than a year later. The neighbors moved on. But even that didn't last long.

Fourteen years after Zimmerman and his neighbors first sought to block its construction, the big-box store on McKinley Parkway closed its doors. A bigger and brighter Walmart opened on Southwestern Boulevard. This time, the company made the better choice of building on the site of a desolate shopping plaza, rather than take up more open land.

Zimmerman wasn't surprised. He was there well before Walmart and was still there when Walmart moved out.

It's a story familiar throughout Western New York. The Summit mall sits empty in Wheatfield. It took years to fill the empty Super Duper in Orchard Park. An electronics store that filled a vacant Wegmans in Cheektowaga last year is already going out of business.

The Walmart on McKinley has been closed now for more than a year. Paint is peeling. The parking lot has potholes. One of the landscaped trees is bent over to the ground.

"It's just another vacant building in Hamburg," said Jack Maddigan, a retired accountant who enjoyed shopping at Walmart before the new location made it less convenient.

Our landscape is littered with empty shopping plazas and big-box stores.

These aren't buildings with a lot of sentimental value. Years from now, we won't gather in their empty lobbies with the hope of saving their grand features. They were built to be used just a decade or two.

Meanwhile, we've turned our disposable consumerism into a disposable landscape.

e-mail: djgee@buffnews.com

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