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First stores at revived Northtown Plaza could open in early 2019

The developer that plans to transform Amherst's Northtown Plaza into a regional shopping and entertainment destination has started removing asbestos from the aging, largely vacant retail buildings that remain on the site.

Massachusetts-based WS Development wants to start demolition on the old buildings and construction on the new buildings in the next 60 days, with a hope of opening the first stores on the 14-acre property by late spring 2019.

Andrew Manning, a WS executive, revealed the latest details on the massive project and its timeline at Thursday's meeting of the Amherst Planning Board. However, he did not say which tenants would move in first.

WS Development only has identified a handful of the tenants with leases – including L.L. Bean, Pottery Barn and Williams Sonoma – but Manning said they are not the full appeal of the project.

"A mix of fashion, food, beverage, fitness and fun. Something that's different. Something new to the market," Manning told the Planning Board.

The Planning Board is the final step in the approval process for the Northtown Plaza redevelopment. The board must approve the site plan and a unified development plan for the project. The Planning Board held a public hearing on the project Thursday but held off on any vote until next month at the earliest.

Planning Board members were receptive to the project and in general lauded the the developer's plans to revive the 66-year-old shopping center. But they did raise some concerns about the appearance of the exteriors on the new buildings and they said they wanted more attention paid to the needs of pedestrians and people taking public transportation to the site.

"Good luck with the project. I think it's going to be wonderful," said board member Dal Giuliani.

Manning and the attorney for WS Development, Sean W. Hopkins, said they are willing to work with the Planning Board. No one from the public spoke at Thursday's hearing.

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

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 shopping center.

WS Development proposes constructing six new retail buildings, along with 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 in from another area shopping center. The developer also hopes to attract prominent local retailers and restaurants.

The company brought in the area's first Whole Foods Market, which opened in September. But the past few years primarily have seen a flight of Northtown Plaza retailers.

Today, all that remains is a Dunn Tire, which soon will move farther east on Sheridan Drive, and a Treats Unleashed pet store that is in negotiations to stay in the plaza following the redevelopment.

This rendering shows an aerial view of WS Development's plans for the Northtown Plaza site in Amherst. (Image courtesy of WS Development)

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.

There's 183,715 square feet of space on the site now and the six new buildings will replace that with 187,210 square feet of space, Hopkins said. Work would begin in sequence on three or four of the buildings initially, followed by the rest, Manning said.

WS plans to break up the sea of asphalt parking spaces that dominates the site today and wants to make it easier to navigate for shoppers on foot, Manning said. The developer wants the site to have a small-scale look and feel and to have multiple building entry points.

It will be an entertainment venue, a place to eat and drink, as well as to buy things, Manning said.

"It's not just a place to shop," he said, calling it an "experiential center."

Once the company finishes this phase of the project, it will start to look at the portion of the plaza it owns just to the east of Whole Foods. WS Development hasn't settled on plans for that site. But Hopkins and Manning said the company is open to building residential housing in some form there, a proposition town officials have encouraged.

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