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Future of area's oldest mall draws divided response

Rows of empty shops line the inside of Amherst's Boulevard Mall, though a few businesses do remain.
Alex Simone / WBFO-NPR
Rows of empty shops line the inside of Amherst's Boulevard Mall, though a few businesses do remain.

Take a visit to Boulevard Mall in Amherst and you’ll see mall walkers doing their laps every day, but the bustling shoppers of years past are now long gone.

It’s a reality the town is trying to mitigate by bringing in companies to redevelop the space, especially as the property value continues to plummet.

The plan is using eminent domain to buy out any businesses still at the mall, then sell the space to developers, with minimal actual involvement from Amherst, said Director of Special Projects Elizabeth Burakowski.

"We're not just taking someone's land, and you know, they're out of luck," she said. "They do get compensated, but by doing that, it allows us to clear the whole sight of all of those intersecting and overlapping interests, and sort of start afresh. And then we will dispose of that property sell that property to developers to redevelop the land.”

Negotiations over who will handle demolition are ongoing.

Resident Joe Voycovitch says he’s concerned Amherst and taxpayers could get stuck with the cost if developers back out of the deal.

“It looks like there will be a hard time trying to get interest in this. And then Supervisor Brian Kulpa says ... that before they sold, or went through the process of getting the land, they would require the developer in mind to post an escrow account for the cost of the property purchase," he said. "I'm thinking developers are not going to want to do this. Who knows how much they're going to cost for the property? They're going to want to put up a $50 million? I mean, that's a lot of money for a developer to take a risk.”

Expectations for future space:
- up to 10 stories
- 64 acres, including several "internal blocks" to keep space walkable
- 1,500 total housing units
- 100 units for senior living
- 125 fixed-income spaces for families
- about 250 apartments for residents at 80% of median area income
- just over 1,000 units divided between market-rate, luxury, student housing

The space will have a few uses in the future, with storefronts on the first floor, as well as cost-controlled and student housing on the other floors.

But resident Bill Blake believes there already are concerns with the stress on sewer systems, and says an influx of residents would only cause additional stress.

“All those pipes ultimately go into the sewer system, which goes to the treatment plant," he said. "The treatment plants have got to be upgraded. So, you can fix the pipes, so they don't break, but at the end of the line, you got to fix that as well.”

Sewer updates will positively impact all the town’s West Side Interceptor sewershed, and should finish by the end of next year, said Amherst Community Development Director Laurie Stillwell.

“The town did a generic environmental impact statement and it kind of identified the things we would need to do in order to attract reinvestment in this area of town," she said. "Sewer work was, obviously, identified. We're very grateful to the governor's office for our $31 million to upgrade our sewer infrastructure, but it will serve a larger territory than the mall. It actually serves a sewershed for the entire southwestern corner of town.”

The changes would benefit an estimated 45,000 residents and 20,000 households, including Williamsville, Snyder and Eggertsville.

The future population increase is already accounted for, so it also won’t affect the wastewater treatment plant, Stillwell said.

The town projects the repurposed space will create a population-influx of 3,400, though the properties will have a rolling completion over several years.

Resident Geri DiCosmo says she’d prefer an option that better fits the town’s character and wouldn’t be destructive to the original space.

“Whatever it is, it has to fit within the character. And I think that's what they should be pushing for," she said. "They want the city of Amherst, then they need to decide that. But I think that many people in the town don't want it ... We understand development and progress. I'm not a planner; I don't know what to go there. But I don't think 10-story buildings and student housing is the answer.”

Using the space for governmental and other offices might be an alternative allowing the remaining businesses to stay open, Voycovitch said.