The Town of Amherst wants to kick-start redevelopment of several big-box retail based sites along Niagara Falls Boulevard, including the struggling Boulevard Mall, by building new streets, water and sewer lines on the properties.
Town officials this week are finishing an application for a $10 million grant through the state's Downtown Revitalization Initiative that would fund an infrastructure upgrade on the 80-acre site.
"If we're fortunate enough to have developers who would want to do this project, we have to make it so they could do the project," said Town Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa. "That's what this project is really about."
Town officials envision a dense mixed-use project of residential, retail and office space possibly one day served by an extension of the NFTA Metro Rail. Such a project would bring viability back to the enclosed shopping center, said David S. Mingoia, executive director of the Amherst Industrial Development Agency.
"The whole notion is to create a shovel-ready piece of property for private interest to come in and revamp that site," he said. "I think we all envision some type of mixed-use center there."
The News reported this month that the appraised value of the Boulevard Mall was slashed nearly in half – from $54.9 million to $29.9 million, a 46 percent drop. The mall has suffered a series of blows in recent years as Sears and Macy’s Mens closed their stores as traditional enclosed shopping malls struggle with competition from online shopping and newer, open-air retail centers.
Mingoia said the current mall is "a large 'greyfield,' " with its abundance of parking, and obsolete based on the economy, the retail sector and consumer spending habits. Kulpa said "green infrastructure" like rain gardens could help better manage storm water that sheds from the site's asphalt parking lots.
The neighborhood that includes and surrounds the mall on Niagara Falls Boulevard got a boost this year when it was deemed eligible by the federal government for a new tax incentive meant to encourage investment in low-income communities.
"I think when you look at where we are as a town and the areas that are going to need an upgrade, that is one area that comes to mind right off the bat," said A.J. Baynes, president and CEO of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce. "I think the town pursuing this is a good thing."
The grants initiative funded by Empire State Development is in its third year and will make 10 awards of $10 million across the state. Amherst's proposal would have to be nominated by the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council. The cities of Jamestown and Olean won the first two grants for this region.
But Kulpa and others see the Boulevard Mall as a regionally significant economic engine deserving of a significant injection of aid.
"As successful as the Town of Amherst is in terms of our economy over the years, this town, like every other municipality, would have a hard time trying to bite off redevelopment of such a significant parcel without some state or federal assistance," he said.
A mixed-use project would appeal to future generations, which have shown they value pedestrian access and rapid transit over automobiles, said Kulpa, an architect and urban planner.
"If we know we're heading in a direction that says we need more pedestrian access – future generations want more pedestrian access – then it doesn't make any sense to construct the same environment we would've built for Baby Boomers or even Gen X," he said.
The town's application covers the retail area from Sheridan Drive north to Maple Road, as well as the entire Eggertsville neighborhood to the south. The grant would pay for a street grid, lighting, trees and sewers on that stretch of Niagara Falls Boulevard, including the mall, which is privately owned.
The mall’s previous owner, Forest City Enterprises, defaulted on the loan in February 2017. Forest City in December turned over the deed to special servicer LNR Partners rather than go through foreclosure.
"This is a regionally significant project," said Kulpa. "We can't just sit back and say we're going to wait and see what happens with ownership at the Boulevard Mall. At some point things are going to move very quickly and if we can prep everything we think we can get things expedited. Otherwise, we could be sitting here staring at this mall for years."