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Forcing a focus

Amherst's careful use of urban renewal will allow movement on Boulevard Mall

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In a creative use of the sometimes misused tool of urban renewal, the Town of Amherst is preparing to invoke that authority to cut through the logjams that have obstructed the necessary work of remaking Boulevard Mall, an entity that one of its owners said "doesn't really exist any longer."

The need is significant. The dying mall sits on valuable property whose taxable value has shriveled, shifting a greater share of the town and school tax burdens to other businesses and residents. But not only does the structure have two owners – developer Douglas Jemal and Benderson Development Co. – but the remaining stores own leases that include sections of the mall parking lot. It's a mess.

But with the general support of the two owners, the town is planning to implement this new strategy, which allows them to negotiate with all the entities, but backed up by the power of eminent domain. With that approach, Supervisor Brian Kulpa believes demolition of the wheezing structure could begin next spring, making room for new development.

It's a smart idea, even though the history of urban development has been fraught with projects that hurt more than they helped. Minorities and poor people were often dislocated with little recourse and to little, if any, ensuing public benefit.

This is different. The Boulevard Mall, once thriving, is all but comatose. The benefit of an urban renewal strategy is that it will focus attention on disparate but interconnected issues that have prevented movement. Indeed, it's hard to imagine that, secretly or not, anchor stores such as Macy's, Dick's Sporting Goods and JCPenney wouldn't be pleased at the prospect of an action that could ultimately allow them to conduct business in a more active shopping environment, whether that is in their existing locations or elsewhere in Amherst's flourishing retail district.

For this to work fairly, the new Amherst Urban Renewal Agency, operated by the Town Board, will need to refrain from detonating the nuclear option – eminent domain – unless the other entities decline to negotiate in good faith. Even then, though, the courts are legally bound to provide fair market value to both sides of any dispute.

Still, it would be better to resolve these matters through negotiations.

So far, town officials say, negotiations with the mall's corporate tenants have been fruitless. But the pending availability of eminent domain – a legal proceeding that allows governments to force the sale of private property for public uses – should quickly change the dynamic. If the strategy succeeds, rights to those exhausted properties will soon change hands.

Urban renewal is mainly been used in cities, not suburbs such as Amherst. But it's not unheard of and, as Kulpa observed in a meeting with The News editorial board, Amherst has a bigger population than Albany. This is a strategy that suits the situation.

Malls are dying around the country as the internet and other influences change shopping patterns. Here, Eastern Hills and McKinley malls are also under tremendous stress, to the economic disadvantage of their towns' taxpayers.

While all share a common problem, each features unique complications. For Boulevard Mall, at least, the urban renewal approach offers the possibility of a fair resolution of difficult issues that cannot be allowed to linger. Other municipalities should watch closely.


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