Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Greening Of Suburbia's "Grayfields"

Today's "Grayfields" Are Tomorrow's "Brownfields;" Planners Look For New Ways To Keep Old Suburbs Green

The suburbs of Buffalo, New York are not unlike suburban Long Island -- sprawl, an aging infrastructure, a built-out economy, and decades of reliance upon haphazard development and rampant growth that was anything but "smart."

Now, planners, urbanisists, and the new suburbanists, are reconfiguring the vehicle-driven idea of suburbia, hoping to change that strip mall mentality into a community-centric, pedestrian-friendly state of mind.

Planners on Long Island can -- and should -- take a page from what's on the drawing board in the suburbs of Buffalo.

The rest of us can read all about it, and hope that county and local governments here on Long Island not only take notice, but call for action on the homefront, turning grayfields into greenfields before they decay into brownfields.

We can't say they have the problem licked in the suburbs of Buffalo, or that they even have a handle on it, but at least they're realizing that they've got a problem.

To us, that's the first step in the revitalization process -- realizing we have a problem.

The upstate suburbs have a long way to go, to be sure. As for Long Island's woes, until local government accepts that the decline of grayfields into brownfields cannot be halted by brick pavers and Victorian-style street lamps -- or by building municipal parking fields that lay empty, the surrounding business districts in ruins -- the very problems suburban planners probe here will persist.
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Aging retail outlets present a dilemma; Developers struggle to give stores new life

Sandra Tan
News Staff Reporter

They are a suburban omnipresence: once-vibrant shopping centers and plazas that now litter the landscape.

There are big ones: Town Hall Plaza in Hamburg. Garden Village Plaza in Cheektowaga. The Lockport Mall. Sheridan-Delaware Plaza in the Town of Tonawanda, and Sheridan Plaza in Amherst.

There are small ones, built in the '50s and '60s. Their careworn storefront rows, low-rent tenants and vacancies depress the view along well-traveled streets.

These are "grayfields" -- older, underperforming retail areas surrounded by empty, faded parking lots.

By definition, grayfields are dying places, but local officials and developers are fighting to bring them back to life. Some are meeting with success, but others have a long way to go before their tired retail districts find new purpose.

"The problem the city has been dealing with for years has clearly arrived in the suburbs," said Amherst Planning Director Eric W. Gillert. "So now when we talk about we're all in this together, we're not kidding."

Buffalo has many struggling retail areas, but the phenomenon of aging strip plazas is predominantly a suburban problem.

Sheridan Drive is a perfect example.

The long retail corridor runs through Amherst and the Town of Tonawanda. And large chunks of it -- especially closer to Niagara Falls Boulevard -- are hard on the eyes.

Of roughly 20 older strip plazas that line that stretch of Sheridan, most appear outdated or run-down, and nearly half contain vacant storefronts.

"It's like a diseased mall," said Eric Recoon, vice president of leasing for Benderson Development Co.

Since Sheridan is such a heavily traveled thoroughfare, many of the plazas are at least partly occupied but often filled with low- rent tenants.

"Sheridan is a poster child for what can happen as places age," said Kate Foster, director of the University at Buffalo Regional Institute.

This retail strip is like many others scattered throughout the suburbs.

Many were built 50 years ago, following the suburban explosion after World War II. Since that time, larger and more attractive plazas and malls have robbed older plazas of their best tenants.
In addition, as big-box department stores have folded over the years -- including many on Sheridan Drive -- they've left behind giant, unusable spaces, killing surrounding retailers that relied on the anchor's traffic.

"When people think about grayfields, they're thinking about places that are becoming obsolete," Foster said.

Efforts to redevelop grayfields in Western New York have seen mixed results. Benchmark Group has seen noteworthy success, introducing a Buffalo Athletic Center for Women in the old Colvin- Eggert Plaza and building new boutique-style retail in the old Sheridan-Delaware Plaza, both in the Town of Tonawanda.

The development group also has transformed the old Clarence Mall after purchasing it from an out-of-state partnership. Now called The Shops at Main/Transit, the once-tired plaza with a former Ames and Burlington Coat Factory is once again filled with major retailers.

Benchmark even managed to retrofit the existing Burlington building, which now houses a Bed Bath and Beyond.

"We felt it was a great location, with great demographics surrounding it," said Executive Vice President Martin DelleBovi, director of development. "It just needed an influx of creative money and effort to bring it up to current times."

DelleBovi said redeveloping an old plaza is challenging because it often involves relocating or working around existing tenants. But those tenants provide the developer with revenue during renovations, and town governments happily support such projects.

"Municipalities tend to be very cooperative because they want to see that property turned around," he said. "It's a much easier sell to develop an existing piece of property than to build on vacant land."

Except when it comes to Wal-Mart.

Benderson Development has courted the nation's largest retailer to serve as the revitalizing anchor for the ailing Brierwood Plaza in Hamburg and Sheridan Plaza in Amherst. Wal-Mart also is seeking to take over the aging Lockport Mall.

Each case has met with some organized opposition, though others are eager for the retail giant to fill in the deteriorating commercial property.

Benderson has lured other major retailers as well. It recently brought in a Lowe's to Eastview
Plaza at Transit and Maple roads in Amherst and is renovating the plaza's adjacent retail space, Recoon said.

It is harder for smaller strip plaza owners to reinvent themselves.

Many are owned by limited-liability partners or even a plaza occupant; they don't have the money or credit needed for a large- scale renovation, said Linda Stang, president of Property Management Associates, which handles some distressed properties.

At the town level, promoting the renewal of tired shopping centers requires a coordinated and multifaceted approach.

This year, Amherst, the Town of Tonawanda and Cheektowaga have joined forces with Buffalo to embrace a regional strategy for combating vacant properties called "Blueprint Buffalo."

Among its four key recommendations was to find a way to redevelop grayfield spaces.

The report recommends changes in policy, incentives and zoning requirements.

Amherst, which probably has the greatest concentration of strip plazas, has taken a two-pronged approach: It has changed its zoning requirements and offered tax breaks to property owners who fix up older buildings in lagging commercial areas.

"It's still more expensive to rehab a property than to build from scratch, and that's why we're trying to level the playing field," said Colleen DiPirro, president of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce.

Parts of Eggertsville, Snyder, Harlem-Kensington and Williamsville have been designated "enhancement zones" or redevelopment zones.

The Amherst Industrial Development Agency has approved 30 projects in these zones since 2000, but only three involved retail buildings, said James Allen, executive director of the Amherst IDA. And only one involved a strip mall -- University Plaza, which received a major face-lift in 2000.

Gillert said, "We haven't had a lot of success with strip plazas, but that's because the zoning ordinance hadn't been changed."

In January, the Town Board adopted new zoning laws that make it possible for owners of older properties to redevelop them as "mixed- use" buildings that offer a mixture of retail, office and residential space and are more pedestrian friendly.

The Planning Department is still working on where the mixed-use zoning will apply.

© 2007 Buffalo News

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