Student Housing: Amherst Town Centre project may get axed

Student Housing: Amherst Town Centre project may get axed

By Sandra Tan for Buffalo News

The $44 million project that developers promised would reshape Amherst as a one-of-kind retail and entertainment destination may bite the dust.

After three years struggling to keep the Amherst Town Centre concept alive in the face of Town Board wrangling, legal challenges from neighbors and the long recession, Benderson Development Co. is now negotiating with at least one potential buyer to take the property off its hands.

“Three years is an incredibly long period of time,” said Benderson Vice President Eric Recoon. “The landscape has changed dramatically.”

Dramatically enough that Benderson is in serious negotiations with Landmark Properties, a student housing developer based in Athens, Ga. Landmark expressed interest in the 34-acre former Buffalo Shooting Club property along Maple Road last fall.

“We’ve been working on this since maybe September or October,” said Landmark President Wes Rogers, who met with the president of Benderson Development in Florida a few weeks ago. “I think there’s a good likelihood we can work something out.”

If Rogers succeeds in buying the parcel, the entire multimillion-dollar plan for a high-density, mixed-use “lifestyle center” and destination shopping experience on Maple Road would be abandoned in favor of low-density, cottage-style student housing.

The original plan for the 276,000-square-foot Amherst Town Centre, later renamed University Town Centre, involved closely clustered buildings in a village design, featuring specialty retail along with a hotel, office and apartment spaces, restaurants, a public plaza and a 4.5-acre park fronting the street. Condominiums would have anchored the west end of the property.

Benderson officials said this mixed-use project was a “special” endeavor for the company. It was to be the first of its kind for this region, though the model has been successful in other parts of the country.

Momentum stalled

But that was three years ago.

Recoon would not address Landmark’s interest in the property, nor would he explicitly discuss Benderson’s future plans for the gun club site beyond beginning cleanup of the lead-contaminated site by June.

“I don’t have absolute certainty as to how that’s going to play out,” Recoon said of the mixed-use concept. “All options are open. We’re not going to close the door on anything. We’re not going to rule anything out.”

He acknowledged, however, that much of the original concept’s forward momentum stalled after the economy started to tank just months after Benderson gained rezoning approval for the project.

Continued legal challenges by the Fairways Group, a neighborhood group that formed to oppose Benderson’s original plans for the site late last year, also worked against the project, he said. Most of the challenges have now been exhausted.

“We’ve taken sort of a forced step back,” Recoon said.

Rights set to expire

Amherst Supervisor Barry Weinstein said he was told many of the tenants Benderson had hoped would open at Amherst Town Centre wound up in Walden Galleria after the mall expanded.

Recoon said his company has not shut the door on the original development plans, but he did not deny it is considering sale of the property.

Rogers said Benderson officials don’t believe the current retail market is capable of sustaining new construction right now, which is why they’re entertaining offers. He said he found out about the gun club parcel through a real estate broker who was friends with a Benderson employee.

Since then, however, Benderson officials have told him that they’ve been discussing the property with a few other select buyers. To what extent he doesn’t know, he said.

“From what I’m hearing, we’re probably the lead dogs on this,” he said.

Rogers confirmed that he had met with the town Planning Department and with members of the Fairways Group.

Fairways Group spokeswoman Judy Ferraro said the plans by Landmark look promising and far more acceptable than the original plan Benderson had proposed. The University at Buffalo, however, is likely to raise objections to yet another private student housing developer building anything adjacent to the North Campus.

Rogers said he’s negotiating with Benderson to nail down an agreeable price for the parcel. Right now, he said, what Benderson is asking is more than what Landmark is ready to pay.

Landmark Properties was founded in 2003 and is now the 18th-largest owner of student housing in the country, Rogers said. The company is known for low-density, cottage-style student housing with high curb appeal, numerous amenities and lots of green space.

Landmark already has established student housing developments near universities in Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and Texas.

“We’ve built $300 million in student housing in the last 2 1/2 years,” Rogers said, “and we’ll probably double that in the next three years.”

Since the gun club property was rezoned to a “general business” designation for the Amherst Town Centre development in June 2008, Benderson’s three-year rights to build on the property will expire unless construction begins in June.

Soil cleanup

Building Commissioner Thomas Ketchum said the town and the developer are finalizing an agreement for Benderson to preserve its general business rezoning status by starting cleanup on the brownfields property within the next two months.

That would involve excavating and replacing the top 1 1/2 to 2 feet of soil to remediate the lead-contaminated land to a state standard.

Ketchum said cleanup should be completed by the end of the year.

Rogers said the goal would be for Benderson to complete the cleanup, preserve the general business designation for the parcel, then sell the property to Landmark Properties.

Landmark would then begin the process of getting the property rezoned once again, this time to a “multifamily residential” designation. Ideally, Rogers said, Landmark would be in a position to break ground sometime next year.

Weinstein said he would withhold judgment on any future development of the property until he learns more.

“My main thought is to see the parcel cleaned up and to see it cleaned up by the end of the year,” he said. “If it’s cleaned up, I’d be willing to consider anything the owner wants to propose.”

With no signed deal right now, however, Benderson is still free to consider all potential offers and possibilities.

[buffalonews.com]

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