Weekly Feature

2017-12-06 / Front Page

Eastern Hills Mall the focus of student architecture presentation


The future redefinition of Eastern Hills Mall will require the type of progressive approach necessary for a site that has become susceptible to the same kind of ominous economic trajectory that has plagued brick-and-mortar retail centers across the country.

On Tuesday, the distinctive issues facing the mall received an injection of youthful enterprise.

A group of students from Alfred State College recently conducted a project on potential adaptive reuses of the mall site and gave their final presentation to an audience of residents and town officials at Clarence Town Hall.

The 14 students in the group worked diligently to understand the history of both Clarence and Eastern Hills Mall, as well as that of the retail industry and its trends dating back to the 1950s, says Alex Bitterman, chairman of Alfred State’s Department of Architecture and Design.

“What we’re doing is studying the feasibility of what could be possible at this site,” he said. “It’s common knowledge that brick-and-mortar retail is really in a decline. In the Western New York area, we have a lot of that sort of retail, particularly in Cheektowaga and Amherst.”

According to Bitterman, the Eastern Hills site lends itself well as a case study in adaptive reuse potential, given Clarence’s emphasis on preventing its historical identity and heritage from being transformed.

“If we compare Clarence, which has a reasonably small portion of retail or commercial land use, to a place like Amherst, it gives us the opportunity to say that Clarence has a historical root that is very deep,” he said. “So, we wanted to recognize what makes Clarence unique and different from the other towns and villages in Western New York.”

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

“There are some striking similarities between the Crocker Park site and the Eastern Hills site,” Bitterman said. “They’re about the same in square acreage and about the same in terms of age. They share a similar timeline in terms of progression and change over time.”

The Alfred State group visited the Crocker Park site, taking note of what components of its transformation were successful and which ones were not. While the group marveled at the metamorphosis of the site from a straightforward shopping complex to a neighborhood unto itself, they were not impressed with what seemed to be a deliberately artificial environment.

“One thing we noticed is that there are no native plantings on the site. Every tree and flower are in a bucket or a pot,” said Bitterman.

Of the countless brainstorming sessions conducted within the 14-person student group, Bitterman noted that the most plausible solutions featured a site that could potentially attract prominent tech companies.

“The campus would focus on technology and technology development where people could live, work and re-create. It could potentially house development from a Tesla research center to Yahoo! which already has a strong presence in Western New York with their database in Lockport,” he said.

Ultimately, Bitterman hopes his students will walk away from the project with an understanding of how what they’ve designed will impact the lives of those who will eventually work there and live near the site.

“One of the things we’re focused on here [Alfred State] is doing good architecture for the social good. That’s the motto of our department,” he said. “That notion of doing good architecture, is not necessarily always the flashiest or the most exciting; it’s doing what’s most responsible socially. That’s very important for our students to learn.”

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