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Editorial: Eastern Hills' intriguing idea

Enclosed malls with multilevel floors and large expanse had its heyday, but now the way people shop has changed. Better online deals and tastes have converged to break the model.

Small strip plazas are chic, once again. For those who prefer to shop from the comfort of home, every favorite store has a website. Filling an online shopping cart is almost too easy, and can be done from a smartphone.

So where does all this leave those hulking, empty malls? Some have been reinvented, quite successfully. Others have bitten the dust. Literally. Torn down, they leave behind large empty lots. But it doesn’t have to end that way.

The owner of Eastern Hills Mall is exploring a new beginning in the form of a town center. It is the live, work, play – and shop, eat, explore – model that has been working in other places across the country. It’s worth a try. It could become the “place to be” for millennials and empty nesters and visitors. That, at least, is the hope.

The Clarence mall has put the property up for sale in a bid for investors. Mall officials are working with the town to create special “lifestyle center” zoning, and is in talks with Uniland Development Corp., which as one of the region’s largest commercial real estate firms, could help shepherd the project, by taking an investment stake in any potential redevelopment.

As Russ Fulton, the mall’s general manager told The News, “Retail alone just cannot support these large parcels any longer.” He advised that it takes a mix of housing, services, restaurants and entertainment.

Nothing is official and no plans have been released but company officials have talked about bulldozing and rebuilding. Vision and money will pave the way.

It is an interesting idea, taking a page from other similar efforts: Easton Town Center in Ohio, the Avalon in Georgia and North Hills in North Carolina. As News business reporter Samantha Christmann recently wrote, these town centers have found financial success incorporating residential, retail and office space. Lease rates tend to be much higher rate than the competition. The spaces are often nearly fully occupied and with little turnover.

The article pointed out that the transition does not always work. There have been failed attempts, or simply failures to launch. But when it works, the experience is enticing – and profitable, too. Even though town centers make up less than 2 percent of the country’s shopping centers, they are among the most profitable, as cited by the International Council of Shopping Centers. What is more, these projects costs less to operate and maintain than enclosed malls while generating higher revenue margins. They draw more affluent customers, willing to spend their money.

Town centers can become destination places for out-of-towners, even if they’re not staying in one of a number of on-site hotels: taking a stroll on a nice summer day, catching an outdoor movie or, in the winter, engaging in a number of outdoor activities, maybe ice skating.

The location of Eastern Hills Mall is advantageous for developers. It’s in one of the highest household income areas and surrounded by some of the safest suburbs in the region’s market. The 86-acre space offers the opportunity to consider various concepts.

Time will tell whether this or other ideas make it to the forefront. But change is inevitable, and this is an idea well worth considering.

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