NFTA Metro Rail stationed inside the DL&W Terminal. January 10, 2019 (WBEN Photo/Mike Baggerman)

Future of Amherst Filled with Development Opportunities

Talks of Metro Rail and Boulevard Mall redevelopment exciting but uncertain

July 31, 2019 - 5:56 pm

AMHERST (WBEN - Brendan Keany) -  This year has been a hectic one for Amherst Town Supervisor Brian Kulpa, who's dealing with several unknowns and development projects that will have a major impact on the future of the area.

Perhaps the most prominent of projects is the possibility of a major Metro Rail expansion on Niagara Falls Boulevard, which connect UB's North and South Campuses with light rail.

"When I came into office a year-and-a-half ago, we knew that we really needed to focus on the West Side of Amherst and the redevelopment of the West Side of Amherst - we have a decent amount of retail vacancies starting to develop," said Kulpa. "We had been aware of the NFTA's interest in light rail extension, and we're behind it if they can leverage it - that's great. We know we need transit options; whether it's light rail or otherwise, we need better transit options in that corridor."

Of course, much of what ends up happening with a possible Metro Rail expansion is completely out of Kulpa's hands, and it largely depends on the passage of a a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill from the federal government. The NFTA has been working for state and federal monies for this project, and their director of public affairs, Helen Tederous, discussed how that process is moving along. Currently, they are in the process of completing the environmental analysis, which will be finished this fall, and they plan on holding a public meeting in September to discuss some of those findings.

Tederous explained what the NFTA must continue to do to put the community in the best position to receive the heavily competitive funding.

"We will have to present a well-designed project for federal funding," said Tederous. "That project will have to show public support and a well-designed project, so that is pretty complex, and when we say it like that, it's going to take some time and some consideration, and that's what we're trying to do."

She emphasized that community input is critical.

"We always say, whenever we're asked about this project, that this is not an NFTA project; this is a community project," she added. "We want to be very, very careful to be sure that the public is supporting this project. We have a fiduciary responsibility to pursue and to see this project through, and to make sure that we're doing everything according to plan and analysis, and it's something that we're taking very, very seriously."

Listen to the full conversation with Tederous below:

Unfortunately for some of the more eager members of the community, Tederous believes it will take another two to three years until they can determine exactly where they're at with respect to federal funding.

What Amherst does have more control over is the redevelopment of the Boulevard Mall, which has been a failing property in recent years.

"The mall has been a traditional place of commerce in Amherst, but now it's upside down," said Kulpa. "Property values have tailed off considerably; I think it's hovering around $30 million right now, which is a long cry from the to $50-some million it was valued at last year, and a far cry from the $90 million it was once valued at."

As major property values like that fall at such a rapid pace, it has a tremendous effect on tax collection and revenue for the town.

However, there's a light at the end of the tunnel for the Boulevard Mall, as prominent developer Doug Jemal purchased the property earlier this year and is looking to return the area into a bustling economic center once again.

"I have a vision, and Douglas has a vision, and we seem to be somewhat aligned in our conversations," said Kulpa. "The vision that the town board is advancing with our departments is a fairly dense mixed use are with some public spaces that are substantial but not massive, and heights somewhere between four and five stories with a lot of residential driven heavily by our need for senior housing, our need for student housing and our need for market-rate apartments - balanced by smaller retail footprints underneath. So, it's probably a more urban environment than we have anywhere else in the town."

With the possibility of these two projects - the Metro Rail expansion and redevelopment of the mall - occurring at the same time, it could pay huge dividends for Amherst.

"I think that one that did turn things around as far as public opinion goes was when Amazon came in, and there was quite a bit of discussion about public transportation and the level of public transportation," said Tederous. "I think it's something that people don't realize - when large companies come into communities, they do look at public transportation; it's very, very important."

We reached out to Doug Jemal but have not yet received a response.

Listen to the entire conversation with Kulpa below:

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