Garden Village Plaza may see change community has waited for
“In the 21 years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen that plaza go from a bustling community shopping center to an absolute drag on the neighborhood,” said David Belasic, Cheektowaga resident.
But the plaza may no longer be a drag. In fact, it actually may become something Cheektowaga residents can be proud of.
Benderson Development purchased Garden Village Plaza for $2 million in 2006, although former owner Howard Drucker intended on selling it for $5 million. But the plaza did not have much to offer then, so the selling price decreased by more than half.
The new developer said it had big plans for the plaza, but as years went by nothing seemed to progress. In fact, two existing tenants, T-Birds nightclub and the Village Flea Market, have left since then, leaving a Dollar General store as the only tenant.
And since the 2006 purchase, Dollar General has remained the only successful tenant of the plaza. The steady decline of Garden Village has been a major disappointment for Cheektowaga dwellers who remember the plaza’s glory days, and allegations have arisen regarding Benderson Development’s motives for purchasing the plaza in the first place.
Benderson Development has been criticized for purchasing properties in Western New York with “big plans,” but then not immediately following through with them. One commenter on SpeakupWNY.com said, “As far as Benderson goes, I think they're out to screw their tenants. Their lease agreements are about 5x as many pages as anyone else's. This mass of paper gives them places to hide things and change commonly used units of measure. Someone else has a monthly charge and Benderson will have the same number, but it's weekly. Not an obvious thing to catch over the course of several hundred pages.”
But Cheektowaga Supervisor Mary Holtz assures that Benderson Development is a well-intentioned company and that Garden Village Plaza was purchased with an initial plan to move a Wal-Mart there. The superstore never happened, but there are plans, however, and the town supervisor is hopeful about them.
“If there’s nothing there, they can’t develop it,” the supervisor said.
Supervisor Holtz made note that Benderson Development received no tax breaks or incentives in purchasing Garden Village Plaza, a fact that contradicts popular belief. The supervisor also said that the town received no tax deferment in the purchase.
So perhaps Garden Village Plaza was purchased with big plans that have just not yet taken form. But as of a year ago, and most recently this month, plans for the plaza have been brought forth to the town.
“Fortunately Benderson approached the town a year ago, where they wanted to reestablish an open market theme there,” said Daniel Ulatowski, town planner. “The idea was to relocate the tenants, which were viable at the existing flea market on Walden Avenue and create more of a destination shopping experience, at least on the weekends.”
In phase one, open-air structures will be constructed so vendors can pull up trucks and sell produce and perishable goods. The idea is to create big, open-air structures to create a festive outdoor market that would occur in the warmer parts of the year. Year round, Benderson Development plans to open up the floor plan in existing buildings in the plaza for interior vendors who wish to sell their wares. In the old Ames, each vendor would occupy a 10x12 cubicle (or combine two or more cubicles for larger space) where items will be sold.
In phase two of the project, Benderson Development plans for some of the vendors to have access to a pedestrian way, where they can roll up their doors and sell their products in an active pedestrian way. The idea is to create a community shopping experience.
“Our concern is that the community has a pleasurable shopping experience, inside as well as outside,” Ulatowski explained.
In order to achieve said experience, there will be design standards in which all vendors will be required to look alike in the selling area. Ulatowski and Holtz said the town wants aesthetic control on the interior and exterior.
“We’ve advised the developer that we need to see aesthetic controls put in place,” the town planner noted. “We’ve also advised that we want to see a monetary commitment, that this isn’t going to be a “paint up, fix up” redevelopment. We want to see a serious commitment so that it’s successful. We think for it to be truly successful is not only this [plan for an open-air market] as a destination shopping experience, but we think there’s a need for an anchor tenant again.”
Ulatowski and Holtz believe that if the new market plan for Garden Village Plaza is successful, it will attract an anchor tenant, perhaps a grocery store. They want the plaza to be more than a weekend deal and are hopeful for its potential.
As of May 2011, an exterior property maintenance inspection was conducted and improvements are likely in the works. One major concern has been the terrible state of the Garden Village Plaza parking lot, which is ridden with large potholes. Ulatowski said that the town is working to bring the parking lot up to speed.
“There are minor commercial maintenance violations,” he said. “Essentially it’s a vacant plaza with the exception of the dollar store, so as long as it doesn’t pose an imminent danger, it doesn’t present anything other than unfortunately an eyesore for the community. And we hope that Benderson is committed to a large capital investment to remove that eyesore. It’s a gateway to our community.”
Supervisor Holtz said that with the collapse of the economy, the demise of plazas like Garden Village was inevitable. Wal-Mart did not work out for the plaza, and with a weakened economy it grew increasingly difficult to attract any anchor tenant.
“In the last year or two, we’ve really started to see development in Cheektowaga,” Supervisor Holtz said. “I think that’s why they’re looking now to opening a new market, moving that flea market, attracting a big box store – because the economy is growing. And everybody asks, ‘Why can’t you do anything about it?’ You can’t force a developer to redevelop. This is a free market world.”
Ulatowski and Holtz also noted that the town can really only regulate the upkeep of the plaza’s exterior. Ulatowski said it would be nice if the town could offer incentives to encourage developers to pour money into redevelopment, but with the state of the economy it is not possible.
“Even that I don’t agree with anyway,” added Holtz. “You can’t give away taxpayer money for everything. It all depends on the market – if Cheektowaga has something to sell, we’ll sell it. And I think Cheektowaga has a lot to sell. Cheektowaga is a great community for businesses, as I can see with the businesses coming in here.”
Eric Recoon of Benderson Development said in an email to the Cheektowaga Source, “We have submitted for a change of zoning and site plan approval which is pending with the Town. Our entitlements team met with the EAC last week and we are in the process of addressing comments so that we can resubmit to the Town. We remain excited about the prospect of converting an obsolete shopping center into a burgeoning Garden Village Marketplace, which will draw visitors from the immediate Cheektowaga vicinity and throughout WNY. Much has to occur before that plan becomes a reality - but that is our vision for the site.”
On Feb. 9, a proposal was submitted to the town and reviewed by the Environmental Advisory Committee:
"The site is the former Gardenvillage Plaza. The applicant is proposing to establish the Gardenvillage Marketplace. The existing building would be reconfigured for numerous concession stands. The exterior would have three long shelters, for additional vendors. The shelters would be heavy timber with standing seam metal roofs with cupolas. The concrete would be decorative. A new parking lot with landscaped islands would be constructed. These shelters would be used seasonally whereas the existing store building would be used year-round and possibly at night.
A draft tenant handbook was submitted for review. This will limit vendors in where their wares can be displayed and what modifications can be made to their space. This set of rules requires further review and revision.
It was noted that the property must be closely reviewed for landscaping. The east property line, bordering the Garden Village Apartments will require significant reworking as there is a retaining wall of railroad ties deteriorating and the owner only indicated the repairing of an existing fence.
It was requested of the owner that an aerial photo have the site plan superimposed so the interaction with adjacent properties can be seen. Additionally adequate pedestrian access must be shown."
Holtz said that in her time as supervisor, she has pushed Benderson Development to do something with Garden Village Plaza, but everything is dependent on the economy. She said that plans are there if the economy allows them.
“If the vision they put on paper they could actually create, it would be ideal,” Ulatowski said.
“Benderson – they’re out to make a buck; they’ll do anything they can to make a buck,” Supervisor Holtz concluded. “But they’ve been very cooperative with talking to us and working with us in the past, so let’s hope they continue.”
Only time will tell, but plans for the Garden Village Plaza have been put forth. And something, anything, is better than nothing.