Originally published in the Cheektowaga Source
Note: In the weeks that I’ve been working on research and interviews for this story, some plans for the Garden Village Plaza were introduced, and it seems that progress is being made! But please continue to read, as this story will provide information on the plaza’s history, current state, and plans for the future.
There once was a plaza, well loved by a town. The people of the town found it to be more than a shopping center – it was a way to spend time with family and friends, a way to enjoy an afternoon. The plaza was a community favorite not only for its location and convenience, but for its atmosphere – families shuffling along, smiles on faces, hand waves and hellos.
But then something happened to the plaza, and nobody in the town could fathom it. Stores began to come and go, as if nobody had the means or desire to stay. This became a trend, and before long only a few tenants remained. They left as quickly as they came.
Where booming stores once stood were vacant, unkempt buildings. Storefronts that once boasted deli sales signs and fashionable mannequins became dirty windows with no view. Where crowds of people once walked and window-shopped were desolate sidewalks. Even the parking lot, which eventually stopped serving its purpose, seemed to die with the plaza as it deteriorated away to a field of hole-filled pavement.
The plaza was called Garden Village, and it still exists, though its appearance may suggest differently. Located on the corner of French and Union Roads, the Garden Village Plaza has been deemed an “eyesore” by most of Cheektowaga and neighboring West Seneca – town residents, employees, even elected officials.
Nearly 27 acres – parking for more than 1,000 vehicles and 170,000-plus-square-feet of retail buildings – resemble a ghost town. More than 20 businesses occupied the plaza at one point or another. Now only a Dollar General store calls Garden Village home.
But area residents remember the plaza fondly, recalling treasured stores and decades-old memories. And comparing then with now is what has elicited a world of questions and a petition for answers.
A Miller remembers the construction of the W.T. Grant’s, a department store modeled after five and dime stores, in the early 1950s. Grants would be the south anchor store of the plaza, which was later occupied by Hills, then Ames. She says what was a viable, busy plaza with a number of establishments is now sad and unsafe. Miller is not alone.
West Seneca resident Louis Flury remembers the plaza’s existence in the late 1960s. He recalls a grocery store, Super-Duper, which served a lot of the young families moving into new houses along French Road and the then-sprawling Marrano Parkway developments. Flury saw the birth, life, and near-death of Garden Village Plaza; he believes the its fate has been inevitable.
This is a problem in many towns, West Seneca included,” he explained. “We have a site, formerly the West Seneca Mall. It went belly-up around 1979; since then all buildings were demolished and the plot has overgrown with weeds. It looks like a warzone! I can see this same thing happening with the Garden Village Plaza property if the people do not address this.”
But Garden Village Plaza did not see its demise for quite some time, and for decades it was a success that brought business and people to Cheektowaga. Tops became the plaza’s north anchor store in 1974, and after its establishment came many more businesses.
Esther Zylinski has lived off of French Road her entire life and remembers the plaza well. Her memories begin with Tops – grocery shopping with her father, her first job in the store’s bakery, the nice employees and patrons. She recollects the way the plaza seemed to compliment the simplicity of her childhood and adolescence, when she and her friends would ride bikes to the plaza, starting at Tops and working their ways through. After Tops, they’d move onto the Rite Aid located next door to admire cosmetics the way many teenage girls do. Then Esther would explore the nearby greeting card store, “try on various outfits and try to act so grown up at the age of 13” at the women’s clothing store Something Special, before heading to Hills for school supplies and clothes.
But there was more to the plaza than shopping and exploring. Events would be held there every so often, with many former Garden Village patrons remembering July 4 fireworks and spring carnivals that featured small rides, games, and treats.
“Everyone in the area would go the parking lot would be full,” Zylinski said of the Independence Day festivities. “You would find your spot to sit and just wait. It was cool as kids to be able to have somewhere to go to watch the fireworks, and as we got older, it was even [better] to go and find friends.”
Garden Village Plaza seemed to become its own little community, even when it had a faster-than-anticipated turnaround with its building tenants. Several Cheektowaga residents who frequented the plaza remember the tenants who came and went. There plaza was exciting and versatile with many businesses, and that’s what really seemed to attract people.
The following businesses are among those that at one point made up Garden Village Plaza: Tops, which was eventually replaced by Vix Drug Store and remains vacant to this day; Rite Aid; a greeting card store; a Polish deli/market; Something Special, a women’s specialty clothing store; W.T. Grant’s, which was replaced by Hills, which then became Ames; an appliance store; a fitness gym; Fowlers Candy; Garden Village Liquor Store; Dairy Queen; Imagimaze, which was comparable to a Discovery Zone play place for kids; T-Birds Night Club; RadioShack; Gary Pools; Dynasty Restaurant, a casual dining Chinese food eatery; Cadet Cleaners dry cleaning; a travel agency, a Thom McCann shoe store; a lady’s hair salon; office space; and a temporary flea market location.
Plenty of businesses came and went through the years, but everything seemed to come to a halt with the development of businesses and plazas along Transit Road, one of which was a Tops in 1993. With the Garden Village Plaza Tops losing customers, the store did not stand a chance, and the plaza eventually lost its strongest anchor tenant.
After Tops moved out, a Vix Drug Store moved in and was well received by plaza shoppers. But after a few years even Vix was no more, and the north anchor store has remained unoccupied since. Hills, a department store, was replaced by Ames, a similar store, at the south anchor building of the plaza, and though the stores were popular, they couldn’t seem to cope with changing times and rising prices. After Ames closed down, the south anchor store became obsolete too.
And before long, almost everything between the north and south anchor stores closed shop. Stores dropped like flies – one closed after another. Every now and then, a new business would open up in the plaza, but the businesses would typically close down quicker than it took to set them up. Today, the only Garden Village Plaza store is a Dollar General. Contrary to popular belief, the nearby Save-A-Lot is not part of Garden Village and is not owned by the same developer.
Supervisor Mary Holtz attributes the plaza’s downfall to the growth of businesses in surrounding areas. The businesses and plazas that sprung up along Transit Road were perhaps most detrimental because of their similarities to Garden Village Plaza and accessibility. The Walden Galleria’s opening in 1989 also hurt Garden Village, as it drove customers from Union and French Roads to Walden Avenue. And with the mall’s success came its solidification in the community – it became an anchor of the town itself.
Garden Village Plaza did not stand a chance.
Part II of this story will run next week and will cover the details of the 2006 acquisition of Garden Village Plaza by Benderson Development, community sentiments, and recently introduced plans for the Garden Village Market Place.