Amherst officials are pitching the Boulevard Mall to prospective buyers as the mortgage holder on the region's oldest enclosed shopping center prepares to put the property on the auction block this spring.
"This is a focal area of the town for redevelopment," said David Mingoia, executive director of the Amherst Industrial Development Agency. "We're introducing new zoning, which potentially could allow for town center, village type of development on a scale that's really not available elsewhere in the community."
The Boulevard Mall's future looks uncertain as shifting shopping habits financially batter traditional enclosed malls.
The property should draw interest because of its size, prime spot on Niagara Falls Boulevard, opportunity for tax breaks and inclusion along a projected path of an expanded Metro Rail, town officials say.
"It certainly would be a large undertaking, but it's one of those rare opportunities, in my opinion, in a real-estate developer's career," said Nick Sinatra of Sinatra & Co. Real Estate.
Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises opened the sprawling Boulevard Mall in 1962 at the corner of Niagara Falls Boulevard and Maple Road.
Forest City put the property up for sale in July 2016 and then, in February 2017, defaulted on a $92 million loan payment. LNR Partners took over in December 2017 when Forest City walked away to avoid foreclosure. LNR Partners is expected to sell the property through an auction in April or May.
The mall retains a Macy's, J.C. Penney, H&M and a Dick's Sporting Goods. It lost two anchor stores – Sears and Macy's Men's – the past two years.
The mall’s appraised value has plummeted from $159.5 million in 2006 to $29.9 million last year, the commercial mortgage data research firm Trepp LLC reported.
The town’s Board of Assessment Review has lowered the mall's assessment to $54.9 million from $62.2 million, far short of the $12.4 million that LNR Partners requested.
Jose Cruz, senior managing director of the commercial real-estate firm HFF, which has the property listing, confirmed the pending auction but said a date hasn't been set. He declined to discuss the sale process in detail.
"It's just a little early," Cruz said.
Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa, frustrated with the town's inability to engage with LNR Partners, in January reached out to the governor's office to intercede.
LNR Partners has been more responsive since then, Kulpa said.
Kulpa and Mingoia said several features make the Boulevard Mall property attractive:
- Its 80 acres include a lot of redevelopment and parking space.
- The property is located on high-traffic Niagara Falls Boulevard, between Maple Road and Sheridan Drive.
- A $1.2 billion Metro Rail extension, though far from certain, would make it easier to reach the site, especially for University at Buffalo students and staff at the North and South campuses.
- The property is in a federal opportunity zone, so investors could qualify for tax benefits.
- The IDA could approve tax incentives of its own.
Mall redevelopments in cities such as Denver and Cleveland have kept some components of the existing structure, Mingoia said, "but for the most part either have repurposed, reused, demolished or completely reintroduced public amenities like parks and squares, along with street grids."
Mingoia said the IDA participates in regular conference calls with LNR Partners about the sale process and is putting together a prospectus on the benefits of investing in the site.
Redevelopment of the site into residential and commercial uses that better connect to the surrounding neighborhood is likely. Kulpa said the town wants to spur this reuse with zoning changes and infrastructure work, including extending the street grid into the property.
A revival of the Boulevard Mall site could look similar to the mixed-used lifestyle center planned at Eastern Hills Mall, although development at the Amherst site could be denser and taller, officials said.
"I think we'll have local and national interest in this property, given its location and the density around the property," said A.J. Baynes, president and CEO of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce.
Sinatra confirmed he is considering bidding for the Boulevard Mall, depending on the asking price.
The potential for opportunity zone tax benefits is attractive, he said, along with the ability to build a walkable campus that draws from Amherst, the Town of Tonawanda and Buffalo.
"It would be a long-term play," Sinatra said.