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Start date unclear for construction of Whole Foods in Amherst

As the Town of Amherst prepares to issue a building permit Friday for construction of the new Whole Foods Market, the roster of tenants remaining in the rest of the aging Northtown Plaza continues to dwindle amid pressure from the shopping center’s new owner.

Western New Yorkers have been eagerly and impatiently awaiting the arrival of the healthy-foods supermarket since it announced two years ago that it was coming to the Buffalo market, bringing a reputation for high-priced quality and a very loyal national following.

But questions have been growing for weeks about just when WS Development, which is based in Chestnut Hill, Mass., would start construction on the 50,000-square-foot grocery store. The store is slated to be built where the long-vacant former Bon-Ton Department Store once stood until it was demolished by WS.

Originally, the $15 million store was to have opened by now. More recently, construction was supposed to have begun in the spring, with the shell of the building turned over to the supermarket chain this summer to finish the interior build-out. Instead, while the site is shovel-ready and the parking lot has been reconfigured with new blacktop and islands, no other activity has begun.

Amherst Building Commissioner Brian P. Andrzejewski said the building permit will be issued Friday, which would allow work to finally begin on the site, although WS officials are still not giving a start date.

“We have been working with the Amherst Building Department to complete the building permit process,” said WS development project manager Andrew T. Manning. “We are finalizing construction details now in anticipation of receiving a permit.”

After years of local shoppers clamoring for it, Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods selected Northtown as the location of its first Western New York store in what many real estate and retail observers considered a surprise move. That’s because the demographics of the plaza and its surrounding area, as well as the plaza’s legacy of hosting many local small businesses, are viewed as sharply different from the norm for Whole Foods.

But WS, a retail specialist that frequently works with Whole Foods, has a track record for doing more than just building the grocery chain’s stores. According to preliminary plans that were obtained by The Buffalo News, WS envisioned a wholesale $75 million redevelopment of the 19-acre Northtown site, replacing the existing mix and bringing in a host of high-end national clothing and other retail brands, such as L.L. Bean, Gap, J.Crew, Loft, Banana Republic, Lucky Brand Jeans, Victoria’s Secret, Eddie Bauer, Justice and Tommy Bahama.

WS officials said that was only an early concept. But already, only a handful of pre-existing businesses are still operating at Northtown Plaza, just two years after WS purchased the 64-year-old Sheridan Drive complex from its longtime owner, Jonathan Luther. The rest – many of which were operating on month-to-month leases – have cleared out or closed, as WS has made clear its desire to radically change the tenant mix to fit better with the upscale clientele that Whole Foods draws.

Tenants say WS either isn’t renewing leases or is raising rents significantly in order to drive them away. Already, two well-known restaurants – My Tomato Pie and Taste of India – have relocated, while a third, Falafel Bar, closed this month. Carolina Furniture closed its store, one of the big anchors, and consolidated to another location on Transit Road. Clothing retailers and consignment shops such as Plato’s Closet and Clothes Mentor moved nearby, while the Erie County Auto Bureau moved into the Town of Tonawanda. Shopper’s Choice, a jeweler and a chiropractor also left. And those that remain, such as Mabel Danahy, Federal Meats and Riverside Men’s Shop, are uncertain of their long-term future in the 19-acre plaza.

In the latest instance, a franchise of hair salon Fantastic Sams was threatened with eviction after falling behind on a rent payment in March. An attorney for WS argued in an Amherst courtroom Thursday that franchisee Michael Baer had shown a pattern of being a “habitual and chronic” late payer in trying to explain why one of his four locations should be kicked out of the plaza, even though the case involved just one payment.

Instead, though, Town Justice Kara A. Buscaglia agreed with Baer’s attorney, Robert Friedman, that WS hadn’t given proper notice of the $3,380 default and that Baer had made an attempt to catch up by the deadline before WS rejected further payments. Indeed, at the time, there was a gap of just $210 between what was paid and what was owed, although Baer now also owes for three more months. Buscaglia dismissed the eviction case but advised Baer to make the payments “immediately.”

“We believe this is just a subterfuge to cancel the lease,” Freidman argued in court. “This would cause tremendous hardship to my client to have to move his salon. This is unequitable. This is illegal.”

Still, this doesn’t guarantee that Baer will stay. His lease runs through 2018, with an option to renew for five years through 2023. But he said that WS officials have been trying to talk him into leaving, offering to relocate him within the plaza or buy out his lease for $125,000 in cash that he could use to move elsewhere. If he stays past 2023, he was told his rent would more than triple.

“I’m a small businessman. I’m not a rich man,” Baer said. “This would be the death knell. This would kill my business.”