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World's biggest design firm hired to remake Eastern Hills as town center

The owners of the Eastern Hills Mall in Clarence have selected the world's largest architecture firm to design the redevelopment of the 100-acre Transit Road property into a new "town center"-style destination.

Uniland Development Co. and Mountain Development Corp. said Thursday they hired renowned real estate planning and design firm Gensler, following a national search in which competing firms came to Buffalo to vie for the opportunity to master-plan the sprawling prime retail site.

That's the next phase in a multi-year process that began when Mountain Development - the mall's longtime owner - brought in Amherst-based Uniland as a joint-venture partner for the ambitious project to transform the struggling mall property.

The mall will operate as normal during this process.

“We undertook a deliberate and broad-based search to identify the best design firms in the country for this project, and we ended up choosing the largest design firm in the world,” said Uniland Vice President Carl Montante Jr. “Even though they’re global in scope, their project leader has Buffalo roots and is passionate about the positive impact this project could have in the region.”

Gensler's work will be led by Marc Bruffett, a principal and strategy director at the firm's New York City office, who is also a graduate of University at Buffalo's School of Architecture and Planning. Bruffett, who still serves as an adviser to the school's program, had previously worked with Montante to evaluate the school's Capstone Studio project, in which UB students spent a semester creating redevelopment concepts for Eastern Hills.

Built in 1969 and opened in 1972, the once-thriving mall was originally the largest in the area prior to the Walden Galleria, but it lost many of its larger tenants over the years, including AM&A's, Jenss, Woolworth, Burlington Coat Factory, Sears, Bon-Ton and Macy's. Only JCPenney remains, among its original tenants. And even with a large number of local merchants that have set up shop within its walls, it has struggled to regain its footing amid a competitive marketplace and the growth of online shopping.

The 100-acre Eastern Hills Mall in Clarence is similar in size to this swath of downtown Buffalo. (Courtesy of Uniland Development Co.)

So instead, Mountain and Uniland decided to remake the property into a whole new concept.

The two owners are seeking to create a new community that combines retail stores, restaurants, entertainment facilities, residential living, hospitality or hotel rooms, healthcare facilities, recreation and other businesses. The goal is "a vibrant, walkable environment with year-round programming," in which "people live, work, shop and play," according to the press release.

Bruffett noted that the size of the site is "nearly unprecedented," and said his team is excited about the opportunity. The site is similar in size to a swath of downtown Buffalo stretching from KeyBank Center to Sahlen Field, and also including HarborCenter, One Seneca Tower, and much of Canalside.

“We see extraordinary potential for redeveloping the Eastern Hills Mall into a world-class destination to live, work, and play,” said Bruffett. “The site is large enough to consider many potential uses. It is easy to imagine an entirely new experience that affords tremendous long term value to the Buffalo community, including both residents and visitors.”

The master-planning phase - including market research, a feasibility analysis, a concept plan approval and branding - is expected to take almost all of this year.

Gensler will work with residents, business owners, government officials and other stakeholders to assemble data and evaluate the potential.

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