Eastern Hills Mall : Lifestyle Center?

Last July, I set out a rough-sketch proposal that the moribund and outdated Eastern Hills Mall transform itself into western New York’s first lifestyle center. It got picked up by WGRZ earlier this month when it was announced that Macy’s would be vacating its space at the mall. A few months earlier,¬†Dave & Buster’s moved to the Walden Galleria.

My point was that, whether the mall knew it or not, it was dying. The Gap left last year. So did American Eagle Outfitters¬†Aeropostale. ¬†Nothing against small, local retailers, but you get a sense that they enable the property to tread water, barely. The mall needs a dramatic re-think, and quickly. This matters because the town can’t afford to have a derelict mall with difficulty paying its taxes or PILOTs.

In my July piece, I recommended that the EHM keep the big box locations as standalone facilities, but rip down the remainder of the mall. Replace it with something just about everywhere else in the country has, except western New York: a lifestyle center. I specifically drew a comparison to what the owners of the once-similar Nanuet Mall in Rockland County did to transform it into the Shops at Nanuet; from a late 60s throwback to a charming replica of a village downtown:

Now, the Eastern Hills Mall seems to be listening. WGRZ reports that it is considering a “major redevelopment”.

Facilities across the United States have transformed from traditional enclosed shopping centers into these open-air plazas, which gives shoppers the atmosphere of a mini-downtown area. Minneapolis has one. So does Cleveland, Pittsburgh and several East Coast cities.

Western New York doesn’t have a lifestyle center yet.

So Eastern Hills Mall, sensing an opportunity, might try to be the first.

In an attempt to adapt to the changing times, the mall will now explore this new “town-center” model of a lifestyle center, according to General Manager Russell Fulton. In an email, Fulton said the redevelopment could include condominium space, hotel space, new restaurants, offices, fitness centers or sports facilities, all tied together by open walkways and plazas.

That is accompanied by this rendering:

Instead of ripping the mall down, it adds the lifestyle center to the area fronting Transit Road and around the north and south edges. It leaves the massive sea of rear parking used now mostly for car dealer overflow and driving lessons. I’m gratified that they’re considering something different, but would tweak this a bit. I think the mall building itself probably needs to go, and the project needs to address that rear area, as well. But it’s a start. I don’t know whether there’s a need there for a “resort”, but a waterpark might be attractive. Several years ago, the town of Clarence debated a public/private partnership to develop a skating rink facility at the EHM, and that should be revisited, as well.

Some balk at the idea of a lifestyle center in western New York, pointing to the weather. People won’t walk outside in the cold, they say. But if you give people a reason to do so, they will. There are thriving downtowns in lots of cold places – Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City come immediately to mind, but so do Boston, Portland, ME, and New York.

There is a lifestyle center in Toronto, just north of the Ontario Science Centre. The “Shops at Don Mills” has high-end restaurants and shops, and the weather there is about as similar to Buffalo’s as you can get. Here’s what it looks like:

So, if you give people a reason to brave the cold and weather, they’ll do it. (See, e.g., Canalside). The Eastern Hills Mall in particular is surrounded by some of the wealthiest zip codes in western New York, yet people treat our region like we’re all on welfare, recently laid off from Bethelehem Steel.

Eastern Hills Mall’s plan is being proposed by one of its tenants, Nathan Mroz, who owns a Buffalo-themed shop in the mall. He says his plan would cost about $300 million, and the town’s new supervisor – a commercial real estate developer – likes it. The mall’s General Manager also seems interested,

In an attempt to adapt to the changing times, the mall will now explore this new “town-center” model of a lifestyle center, according to General Manager Russell Fulton. In an email, Fulton said the redevelopment could include condominium space, hotel space, new restaurants, offices, fitness centers or sports facilities, all tied together by open walkways and plazas.

$300 million here, $300 million there, and pretty soon we’re starting to build stuff people want.

 

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