Nick Sinatra said he plans to retain much of the Boulevard Mall as he and his partners redevelop the 64-acre site they agreed to buy on Wednesday for $24 million.
The founder of Sinatra & Co. Real Estate said the mall will continue to operate as normal as they focus initially on construction of apartments and new retail and restaurant space on land along the street, beginning with the corner of Niagara Falls Boulevard and Maple Road.
Sinatra said he's been talking to Town of Amherst officials for a year or so about reusing the region's oldest enclosed shopping center. The site's inclusion in a federal opportunity zone program that promises tax credits to investors solidified his interest.
"We're going to turn the mall inside out," he said Thursday. "You want to create a walkable village for people."
Here are highlights of Sinatra's interview with The Buffalo News less than 24 hours after he won the bidding for the Boulevard Mall property, and reaction from industry observers:
Ownership group: Sinatra said his partners on this project include investors he has worked with for years on developments throughout this region and outside Western New York, including the Pritzker family in Chicago. They will buy the property through an opportunity zone fund that pulls together contributions from investors seeking the tax benefits of the federal program, he said.
Sinatra said the Buffalo Niagara region is well-positioned to benefit from the program because of the range of properties included in opportunity zones here, including the Boulevard Mall located in the heart of Amherst and the Northtowns, relative to other areas. "For once, we have an upper hand," he said.
Site plans: Sinatra said, in the short term, the mall will continue to operate as is. He said the mall is in better shape than people give it credit for and that's part of what made the property attractive.
"It's still a great mall," he said. "It's not a mall in dire distress."
He said he'll start by building along the edge of Niagara Falls Boulevard and Maple Road, with redevelopment taking place in several phases.
"That could be one of the best corners in Western New York," he said.
He said the housing should appeal to people 55 and older and to University at Buffalo students, in particular. He said he wants to create a town center vibe similar to what's happening in downtown Buffalo.
He said he does not plan to raze the mall.
"We're going to leave a large chunk of it up," he said. "We're not looking to flatten the mall."
He said he wants to keep parts of it in place, where that makes sense, and incorporate those pieces into the overall redevelopment of the site, including extending the street grid onto the vast property.
"That makes perfect sense from a development standpoint," said David S. Mingoia, executive director of the Amherst Industrial Development Agency. "You still have revenue producers in the mall itself and there's just a sea of parking. It's a large gray field, for all intents and purposes, that is just ripe for development."
Sinatra wouldn't put a timetable on the start of construction or say how much he expects to spend on the project. Mingoia said he expects Sinatra soon will present concrete plans to the IDA, which can provide tax incentives depending on how new or redeveloped spaces are used.
Nathan Mroz, owner and founder of the BFLO Gallery & Gift Shops chain, has had a location in the Boulevard Mall since October 2017. The lease ends in January.
"There's a strong consumer base from a very densely populated area," Mroz said. "So we've done well considering all the things going on with all area malls."
Mroz said he's heartened to see a local developer such as Sinatra win the bidding, and he looks forward to talking more to him about how BFLO could fit into a plan for a sustainable lifestyle center.
"If we fit in his vision, we'd like to stay," Mroz said.
Benderson and Wegmans: Sinatra said he will reach out to Benderson Development Co. soon to start to talk about how the two parcels owned by Benderson within the mall footprint – the former Macy's Mens store and the former LA Fitness gym – fit with Sinatra's vision for the site.
He'll have to do the same with J.C. Penney, which owns its store within the mall.
Sinatra said he didn't bid on the neighboring Wegmans store at 675 Alberta Drive, which also was up for auction this week. He said he wasn't interested in that property because it's likely to remain what it is – a Wegmans store – for the foreseeable future and he and his partners would have more than enough space to work with on the 64-acre mall site.
It's not known who submitted the high bid of nearly $7.5 million for the Wegmans property. Wegmans has the right of first refusal to buy the property, but a spokeswoman declined to comment on the company's plans.
Full portfolio: Sinatra said his pending acquisition of the Boulevard Mall site doesn't leave him overextended.
Sinatra & Co. has extensive holdings here and in other national markets and the company is working on several planned developments, including the former Children's Hospital in the Elmwood Village and two parcels at Canalside.
Sinatra said he has partners working with him on the various projects.
"Each one of them is done in phases," he said.
The auction: Sinatra said he doesn't know why the online auction, hosted by Ten-X Commercial on behalf of owner LNR Partners, ran for three days. He said he didn't even pay attention to it until 11 a.m. Wednesday, just two hours before the scheduled end time, and he didn't place his first bid until around 11:30 a.m.
He said he and his team had a value they assigned to the mall. As bidding heated up in the last hours and minutes of the auction, the high bids reached close to their maximum price.
He said he assumed Benderson was one of the other bidders – the company later confirmed that to The News – but he also guessed other, unknown entities were involved.
"I could tell there were multiple bidders," Sinatra said. "We were close to backing off."
Mingoia, who has been closely involved in the town's marketing of the site to potential buyers, said Sinatra showed serious interest in the mall property in earlier conversations.
Mingoia said a few out-of-town groups also contacted Amherst officials, but he doesn't know who ended up bidding. He said he expected bidding would reach only $18 million or so.
"It actually went higher than I thought it was going to go," he said.