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Uniland scales back Eastern Hills Mall town-center plan

Uniland scales back Eastern Hills Mall town-center plan

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Uniland Development Co. said it has scrapped one of the two hotels and half the retail space planned for its remake of Eastern Hills Mall into a mixed-use town center after the Covid-19 pandemic decimated both industries.

The Amherst-based developer and its partner, longtime mall owner Mountain Development Corp., cut the amount of retail space they had planned for the ambitious multi-year redevelopment project from 20% to 10%, and eliminated one of two hotels, in light of the severe drop in store sales and travel that resulted from 15 months of worldwide panic, fear and restrictions.

"We scaled back what we think retail and hospitality needs may be," Uniland spokesman Ryan Weisz said. "That's certainly a reaction of the pandemic and the needs as they sit today. (But) it's very possible that those could increase over the coming years."

That's the biggest change to emerge Friday afternoon, after Uniland announced the two companies had taken the first step toward winning approval for the $250 million conversion project, by filing the first formal proposals with the Town of Clarence for concept plan approval.

Eastern Hills Town Center - Phase 1

The first phase of Eastern Hills Town Center.

The announcement included 11 new renderings and diagrams of the proposed redevelopment, showing how the 100-acre shopping center would be carved up over 10 years or more to create 1,000 apartments, 1 million square feet of office space, a brewery, restaurants with patios and one hotel.

And, as previously stated by the companies, it would also include medical space and shopping, civic and recreational areas, including a park in which to hold outdoor events.

Eastern Hills Town Center-Phase 4

A rendering and schematic of the complete buildout of Eastern Hills Mall into Eastern Hills Town Center, after at least 10 years.

"We’re looking to build a small village right here in the Northtowns, a place where people truly work, play, live and stay," Weisz said. "It’s placemaking, and we want to bring people to this area, and if we do that, it’ll ultimately be supported by the future apartments and buildout of the office space."

Weisz said the design envisions the use of "lots of glass, wood and stone," but he also described the final rendering as "a vision of what it could be," rather than a firm plan.

In part, the lack of clarity stems from the project's long timeframe. But it's also a result of uncertainty about the long-term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which gave the developers time to refine their concept but also threw wrenches into their original ideas. The developers also switched architects, from Gensler to BCT.

The developers now plan to reuse as many of the existing structures as they can, rather than tearing down and building anew.

"It's almost turning the mall inside out," Weisz said. "We do see it as a new plan. Covid gave us the opportunity to refine what we're doing here."

Eastern Hills Town Center Aerial 2

An aerial rendering of the proposed Eastern Hills Town Center redevelopment.

Weisz added that the developers are "not envisioning building any hospitality in the early stage," suggesting the focus will start with "enhancing the civic and entertainment side." 

The developers also have not yet lined up future tenants, although Weisz said that effort can now begin

"Ultimately, it will be a market-driven project, so it's too soon to know which retailers will or won't be there in the future," he said. "The timeline for the phases will be based on market needs. We’re not envisioning a specific start or end date for each phase as the project will be continuously developed."

Eastern HIlls Town Center dining

Officials had hoped to start work this year, but Weisz conceded that the municipal approval process and pre-development planning will likely take 12 to 18 months, pushing the start of construction to at least the second half of 2022. The work will begin on the north end of the property.

Eastern Hills Town Center in winter

Eastern Hills Town Center, in wintertime.

The developers said that mall operations "will continue as usual" during the project, which "really resonated with the merchants" in the mall, who met with the developers on Tuesday, Weisz said. 

"Merchants loved that it’s going to remain open. They think that is so much more community focused," he said. "The merchants that are onsite have been not only an important part of the mall’s past, but part of the vision going forward."

And while the renderings show the significant cut in retail space – with a few large stores such as Raymour & Flanigan, Niagara Emporium and the BFLO Store remaining through the first phase and being torn down or repurposed by the end – Weisz said that's not necessarily the final outcome.

"We're looking to build an authentic experience," he said. "Where merchants want to grow with us, we absolutely want to incorporate them into the plan."

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