Weekly Feature



2018-01-24 / Local News

Town prepares for Eastern Hills’ future with creation of new zoning district

by ETHAN POWERS
Editor


In December, a group of students from Alfred State College conducted a project on potential adaptive reuses of the Eastern Hills Mall site and gave their recommendations to an audience of residents and town officials at Clarence Town Hall. In December, a group of students from Alfred State College conducted a project on potential adaptive reuses of the Eastern Hills Mall site and gave their recommendations to an audience of residents and town officials at Clarence Town Hall. The Clarence Town Board, in preparation for a future redevelopment of the Eastern Hills Mall site, amended the town code at its Jan. 17 meeting to create a new zoning class.

Chapter 229 of the town code’s zoning section now includes a “lifestyle center district” that Supervisor

Patrick Casilio says allows for the creation of a “city within a town.”

The new zoning class will facilitate and encourage walkability, alternative transportation methods, green energy use and, above all, an abundance of mixed-use properties that will create independent neighborhoods in which residents will be able to both live and work.

“It’s important, based on the internet shopping phenomenon and the decline of the big-box center, that we take advantage of the redevelopment of our large-tract mall spaces,” said Jim Callahan, director of community development for the town.

The town hired Sean Hopkins of Hopkins Sorgi & Romanowski PLLC, a real estate acquisition firm, to work with Clarence’s Planning Department to develop the language that would identify the new zoning district.

“The Town of Clarence does have some older and outdated malls, strip plazas, that I think everyone would like to see get redeveloped in the future,” said Hopkins. “The town, to its credit, has decided to tackle that issue proactively.”

In encouraging mixed-use developments that feature significant commercial space, the new district calls for any proposed project in the district to include at least 20 percent residential space, with a maximum of 40 percent. Uses that are prohibited for proposed projects include warehouses; self-storage units; dog kennels; detached residential units, including single family homes; and sexually oriented businesses.

Motor vehicle services will also be limited to car dealerships that have only indoor displays.

Hopkins said the approval process for new projects should begin with the advice and guidance of the town’s Planning Department.

“We envision a two-step process, and before you can start that process as a prospective applicant, you have to meet with the Planning Department,” he said. “We think this will encourage the applicant to bring forth a project that the town will like and can be proud of.”

The first step in the process will be conceptual approval of the project and will include a traffic study, followed by a review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act. Should the plan be forwarded, the applicant will then be required to submit more detailed information.

“They then need to come with fully engineered plans, an engineer’s report, architectural plans, a landscaping plan, drafts and restrictions, [and] easements,” Hopkins said.

In December, a group of students from Alfred State College conducted a project on potential adaptive reuses of the Eastern Hills Mall site and gave their recommendations to an audience of residents and town officials at Clarence Town Hall.

Eastern Hills Mall, which opened in 1971 and is located on 86 acres in Clarence, initially thrived because of a few key geographical and economic advantages. The mall is surrounded by the affluent suburbs of Williamsville, Clarence, Amherst and East Amherst, where average household incomes approach $100,000. The mall is also located at the highly trafficked intersection of Transit Road and Main Street.

Yet despite these advantages, the mall has succumbed to the same problems ravaging shopping malls throughout the country as online shopping has had a profound impact on consumer trends.

According to statistics from the real estate services firm Cushman and Wakefield, there were 35 million visits to malls in 2010. By 2013, there were 17 million visits, representing a 50 percent decline.

At the same time, internet retail sales reached 6 per cent of total retail spending in the fourth quarter of 2013, nearly doubling their share from 2006, according to figures from the National Retail Foundation.

As a result, Clarence’s Planning Department has looked at successful adaptive reuse projects in Ohio, such as Crocker Park and the Easton Town Center, as potential models for Eastern Hills’ own rebirth. Both mixed-use complexes feature retail, residential and office space that aim to become self-contained neighborhoods, complete with walkable streets, storefront parking and a palpable density.

Casilio noted at last week’s meeting that should a similar redevelopment plan come to fruition, it could have a $500 million impact on the town’s tax base.

Chuck Breidenbach, representing the owners of Eastern Hills, asked the Town Board to table the motion so that the involved parties could rework the ordinance’s language in order to provide more flexibility, stating that there is not enough of a framework to allow future developers to work within the proposed guidelines.

“We believe in doing this, you will be able to improve property values on the development even more, improve the quality of life even more, improve the surrounding property values even more and to that fact, increase your tax revenues,” Breidenbach said.

Prior to the Town Board’s unanimous approval of the new zoning district, Town Attorney Larry Meckler assured Breidenbach that the kind of elasticity he was advocating was already written into the proposed ordinance.

“We think this gives the Town Board the flexibility to adapt to any of the issues you brought up,” he said. “Everything that has been drafted here has been done so that we have the flexibility to adjust to all of the issues.”

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