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Town giving Seneca Mall site a fresh look; 2 ice rinks, golf dome are envisioned in bid for recreation center

Plenty of big ideas have come and gone since the owner of the Walden Galleria demolished the Seneca Mall 17 years ago.

A "power center" with 900,000 square feet of retail space. A 15-screen movie theater. Big-box stores.

Only a Tops International Market and a Kmart Big K have materialized in the sprawling parcel just off the Ridge Road exit of the Thruway in West Seneca.

Now town officials -- tired of waiting and armed with advice from Buffalo developer Carl P. Paladino -- are considering a new idea for the land: a public recreation center with twin ice rinks, a golf dome and a running track.

And Paladino, who owns two hotels in the neighborhood and has plans for a third, has been publicly calling for the town to take the vacant portion of the tract by eminent domain from its Syracuse-based owner.

"All they're doing is sitting on it, despite their repeated advances that they're working on a development for it," Paladino said, adding, "I'm all in favor of the town condemning the property and putting it to a public use."

What exactly would be built and whether the town would move forward with the recreation plan is still uncertain, but Supervisor Wallace C. Piotrowski and Councilwoman Sheila M. Meegan have met with Paladino to hear his ideas for the land.

The town also has had a professional appraisal done on a portion of the land owned by S&R of West Seneca, a subsidiary of Pyramid Cos., and has had discussions with the company over the value of the land and its plans for the site, Meegan said.

The company, which owns the Walden Galleria, bought the languishing Seneca Mall in 1994 and began demolishing the buildings that summer for a project called the Shops at West Seneca. Plans floated for the development that included a Sony theater complex and large retail outlets never came together.

Today much of the former mall site is covered with grass and concrete pads, fenced-off from the rest of the plaza. Town residents have grown tired of waiting for Pyramid to redevelop the land.

"They own probably 26 malls across the Northeast," Piotrowski said of Pyramid. "So it's just one piece of their huge puzzle. Now, over the decades, trying to entice them to develop it is the issue."

Pyramid representatives did not return calls seeking comment.

While West Seneca officials appear to be exploring the idea for a recreation center at the mall site, they also are cautious about the potential price tag for that kind of endeavor, including the costs of eminent domain, land acquisition and project construction.

The town is facing millions of dollars in repairs to its sewer infrastructure, and Town Board members have said they want to put any proposal to build a new ice rink up for a public vote.

One estimate presented to the town last year by an architect hired to study potential ice rink projects pegged the price of building twin ice rinks on a portion of the Seneca Mall site at $12.8 million plus the cost of acquiring the land.

Meegan, at a recent Town Board meeting, also expressed concern that the town could lose $2 million in annual property tax revenue if it sought to take Pyramid's empty land. But she said the land -- located near Ridge Road and Slade Avenue not far from the Thruway -- is a prime site for a recreation-type complex convenient to residents throughout the Southtowns.

"If you look at that site, it's a destination," Meegan said. "We have a great opportunity there that we need to do something about. We have to make some great strides in that neighborhood."

Piotrowski said he would like any plan for eminent domain to involve a commercial component.

"It gets to, how are we going to pay for this?" Piotrowski said. "I'm willing to listen. I think we're all willing to listen to whatever ideas someone may have as to how we can purchase it and develop it at a benefit to the resident."

Paladino, who owns a Hampton Inn and a Staybridge Suites nearby, said he plans to invest in a third hotel in the area because he sees "this thing moving in the right direction."

While at the town Planning Board last month to present a site plan to build a Country Inn & Suites on Slade Avenue, he said he supports taking the land by eminent domain for an ice rink and golf dome.

Paladino, in a later interview with The Buffalo News, said he wants to see the town acquire the vacant mall land but is not proposing that his company, Ellicott Development, be involved the development.

"It looks like a wasteland," Paladino said. "It's just terrible, and it could lend itself so well to the children of that area."

email: djgee@buffnews.com