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From Northtown Plaza to the Boulevard, change coming to Amherst commercial hub

Perched next to Whole Foods Markets, surrounded by a chain-link fence, the squat, empty buildings of the Northtown Plaza await their date with the wrecking ball.

This year could bring the first sign of progress at the property – once home to Riverside Men's Shop, Taste of India and an Erie County Auto Bureau office – since the supermarket opened to fanfare in September 2017.

Niagara Falls Boulevard is a regional retail and commercial center, and this is a pivotal year for several high-profile properties along this corridor in Amherst.

• WS Development this spring intends to begin demolition and construction on its planned walkable center for retail, dining and public gatherings at the former Northtown Plaza.

• The special servicer that holds the mortgage on the Boulevard Mall plans to put the region's oldest enclosed shopping center up for sale in the next few months.

• Benderson Development Co., owner of the Boulevard outdoor shopping plaza, is moving closer to redeveloping a nearby 49-acre office park constructed as a University at Buffalo annex campus.

"It's critical," said Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa, who highlighted the boulevard in his State of the Town message Friday. "It's as critical as any main street anywhere. And it's underperforming."

What happens next matters a great deal because Niagara Falls Boulevard is a busy corridor linking Buffalo, Amherst, the Town of Tonawanda and Niagara County, said A.J. Baynes, president and CEO of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce.

"Unfortunately, if that area ages out, that's to the detriment of a lot of homes and a lot of neighbors," Baynes said.

Boulevard big picture

The 1.5-mile stretch of the road between the former Northtown Plaza and the Boulevard is a commercial hub for the area. It includes the only local locations of major national brands, such as Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, as well as numerous mom-and-pop stores. Its location, demographics and population density are attractive, said Brian Sciera, WS Development's senior vice president for leasing.

"We are very bullish on this corridor," Sciera said.

But Kulpa and other town officials want to take steps to bolster the boulevard before there are too many vacancies in the street's aging shopping plazas.

They tout a proposed extension of the Metro Rail to the UB North Campus as bringing new life to the street, but Kulpa said he knows he can't count on that happening yet.

He said he wants to replace large, low-slung retail buildings with new, mixed-use construction that has a smaller footprint but rises several stories high. He also wants to see the street grid extended through those properties.

"Its land use is antiquated and not responsive to the current economy, so we're trying to change that and build off the assets the boulevard has," Kulpa said.

Northtown Plaza

Since buying the 18-acre Northtown Plaza for $18.5 million in 2015, Massachusetts-based WS Development has built the area's first Whole Foods on one portion and overseen the emptying out of the two largest retail buildings on the site.

The company has removed asbestos from the buildings and received the necessary approvals to begin work on six buildings and a central green on the property.

However, WS held off on beginning demolition last fall, saying it didn't want to work through the winter months and leasing of space was taking longer than anticipated.

Opening of new Northtown Plaza stores delayed to 2020

WS has reeled in L.L. Bean, Pottery Barn and Public Espresso + Coffee, among other tenants. Sciera said the company isn't concerned about the slow pace, which he said is driven by the national retail climate.

"We've been working hard on leasing to the right tenants," he said.

Demolition could begin this spring, with construction starting soon after. The first shops wouldn't open until mid-2020, Sciera said, leaving Whole Foods on its own for nearly three years.

"They're well aware of our plans," Sciera said of the chain.

Kulpa said he's staying optimistic in the face of delays at the Northtown Plaza property. He did note the movement of former Northtown tenants into empty storefronts in other nearby shopping centers, such as the Sheridan Plaza and the Piccadilly Plaza.

"It's pushed some of the pieces around the chessboard a little bit," Kulpa said.

The Chamber's Baynes said he's confident that WS will live up to its promises given its extensive track record in other communities.

Boulevard Mall

The Boulevard Mall has lost two large anchor stores in the past two years, along with other tenants, and its future is in doubt as shifting shopping habits batter traditional enclosed malls.

The Sears store closed and the separate Macy's men's store moved into the existing Macy's store.

The mall’s previous owner, Forest City Enterprises, defaulted on its loan in February 2017 and in December 2017 turned over the deed to special servicer LNR Partners.

Boulevard Mall's appraised value is slashed by 46 percent

The mall's appraised value has plummeted from $159.5 million in 2006 to $29.9 million last year, an 81 percent drop, the commercial mortgage data research firm Trepp LLC reported.

The special servicer in 2018 asked Amherst to slash the mall's assessment from $62.2 million to $12.4 million, according to Town Assessor David Marrano. The town's Board of Assessment Review instead lowered it to $54.9 million.

Sean Barrie, a Trepp research analyst, said LNR Partners plans to put the mall up for sale in the first quarter of this year.

"All I want to do is see the mall hit the market," Kulpa said.

He said town officials last week reached out to the governor's office to intercede with the special servicer on the town's behalf.

Amherst Commerce Park

This 49-acre office park originally was built in the late 1960s as a temporary annex campus for UB as it prepared to construct its North Campus in Amherst. But the last UB employee didn't leave until 1994.

It grew into an office park that developer Bernard I. Obletz purchased in 1980 and later expanded. Benderson bought the 17-building property in 2015 for $12.5 million.

Benderson buys major office park in Amherst

The property at Ridge Lea Road sits between North Bailey Avenue and Interstate 290 across the road from Benderson's the Boulevard. Tenants include KeyBank, which takes up an entire building for back-office functions.

Benderson's the Boulevard, formerly Boulevard Consumer Square, has expanded significantly over the past decade.

Benderson has worked to create more of a public space there, decorating for the winter shopping season and hosting a holiday event in December that advertised Santa Claus and sleigh rides around the plaza.

Benderson has talked about converting the neighboring office park into a mixed-use development ever since closing on the purchase.

"The goal is to seamlessly integrate the Boulevard and the ACP projects – likely through use of roundabouts," Eric Recoon, vice president for development and leasing, said in an email.

Kulpa said the town is starting to work with Benderson on zoning, infrastructure and environmental considerations for the site.

Benderson owns considerable property up and down the boulevard, including the Delta Sonic at the corner of Maple Road and the former Macy's men's store.

Developers such as Benderson work in markets outside Western New York and can apply that knowledge to local projects, Baynes said.

"These are developers that are really looking at what 2030's going to look like for the consumer," he said.

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