Developer Douglas Jemal is seeking deep cuts to the value of the Boulevard Mall and a neighboring Wegmans property, but said he’s optimistic he can reach a deal with Amherst town officials that avoids lengthy litigation.
Jemal last month filed a challenge in State Supreme Court, arguing the assessed values set by the town for the the mall and the supermarket property at 675 Alberta Drive are far too high. He wants the mall’s assessment slashed by 77% and the supermarket’s cut by 58%, at least temporarily, and pointed to the economic toll taken by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It’s a very sad state of affairs,” Jemal said in an interview Saturday.
Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa said he’s got a good working relationship with Jemal and he expects to find middle ground to settle the challenge once the town assessor and its legal counsel collect further documentation justifying any assessment reductions.
“We’re going to work through it,” Kulpa told reporters and editors from The Buffalo News earlier this summer.
It’s not uncommon for property owners, particularly owners of large commercial sites, to try to lower their tax burden by seeking significant reductions in the assessed value of those properties.
Owners of the Boulevard Mall, the region’s oldest enclosed shopping center, have tried this for years as it and other malls around the country have seen sales and foot traffic fall and vacancies rise.
Jemal, whose Buffalo holdings include the Statler and Seneca One towers, purchased the mall in June 2019 through his Douglas Development Corp. following an auction that spring. Jemal paid $24 million for the 63-acre mall and $6 million for the adjacent Wegmans parcel.
The town assesses the four mall parcels owned by Jemal at $30 million for tax purposes, based on a fair-market value of just under $33 million. Jemal, through his attorney, Peter Allen Weinmann, is seeking a reduction to a fair-market value of $7.6 million.
For Wegmans, Jemal is seeking a reduction from a fair-market value of $9 million to $4.1 million, according to a court filing.
Weinmann and Jemal said the challenge to the mall’s value is based on the rising vacancy rate, the declining rent payments coming in from tenants and pandemic-related difficulties that include its closure and sluggish reopening.
Asked about the business outlook for the mall, Jemal said, “It’s a nightmare.” He has proposed transforming the mall and its surrounding “sea of asphalt” over the next decade into a vibrant and walkable mixed-use community.
Amherst Assessor David Marrano in a previous interview rejected Weinmann’s arguments for the vastly reduced mall assessment and said the town would fight the effort in court, no matter the cost.
On Sunday, Marrano said he believes there are some procedural issues with the mall assessment filings and the town plans to ask a judge to dismiss the challenge.
As for the Wegmans, Weinmann said that challenge is based on an analysis of the lease and of comparable retail property sales. He said his firm also is seeking a reduction in the assessment of the Wegmans in the Urbandale Plaza in Depew on similar grounds.
Jemal, for his part, said the Alberta Drive Wegmans has seen a drop in sales of prepared foods and other items that can’t safely be displayed now, such as from the hot food and salad bars, and is subject to limits on store capacity.
Assessment challenges typically are settled. Kulpa said he recognizes the difficulties businesses are operating under, but he relies on the Assessor’s Office and legal advisers to represent the town’s interests.
“I am a lot of things, but I am not an assessor,” Kulpa said Saturday. “Let’s just let the process start.”
Jemal said he doesn’t want to see this drag on any more than the town does.
“We’ll work it out,” he said. “Life is too short for fighting.”
In addition, J.C. Penney, which owns its store property in the Boulevard Mall, is challenging that assessment. And Weinmann also is seeking a deep reduction in the assessed value of the Eastern Hills Mall in Clarence on behalf of the owners of that struggling shopping center.
Published by The Buffalo News