Uniland Development Corp. has abandoned plans to tear down the former AM&A's flagship store in downtown Buffalo and build a new office complex on the site.
Uniland Chairman Carl J. Montante Sr. confirmed Tuesday that the lack of public financing doomed the $40 million project.
"We've pulled the plug," Montante said. "We said from the start it would be a risky and complex project that would require governmental support. Unfortunately, we weren't able to secure that help in a workable period of time."
In unveiling the project in early 2004, Montante sought $11 million in government aid "to make the numbers work." In making the request, he cited the high costs of demolishing the 325,000-square-foot retail structure at 377 Main St. and preparing the site for construction -- estimated at upwards of $8 million.
"It's too bad for downtown, too bad for Buffalo. This would have brought new life to a section of Main Street that's really crying out for a fresh start," Montante said.
Uniland never revealed its prospective office tenant, referring to it only as its "tenant in tow." The mystery tenant was expected to bring about 400 new jobs to downtown.
Early on, it appeared that the project would be a perfect fit for a share of funds set aside for the never-built Adelphia Communications operations center. But support from state lawmakers quickly eroded.
The Amherst firm's request for government aid raised the ire of a number of local developers, who contended that the aid would create an unlevel playing field for other private developers taking on difficult downtown revitalization projects.
The proposed demolition of the former Adam, Meldrum & Anderson Co. department store also drew harsh criticism from preservationists, who argued that the Main Street landmark should be renovated, not razed.
The Erie County Industrial Development Agency, Empire State Development Corp. and Buffalo Niagara Enterprise continued to work with Uniland for several months on various assistance scenarios, including having a government entity acquire the site and do the demolition, ultimately putting it in the hands of a private developer. However, as months passed, such issues as the availability of funding, the precedent the deal would set and the true economic impact of the project combined to stall discussions.
Montante acknowledged the willingness of economic-development officials and others to continue to explore ways to keep the project alive but said the time has come to explore other options.
"We are looking at two suburban sites and one urban site that's a long shot," he said. "Our tenant needs to make plans, and we are working to accommodate them."
Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, who supported the Uniland project, said he is not giving up on finding a new use for the AM&A's site. "It's totally unacceptable to just let that building sit there," he said. "There has to be a plan for either a reuse or new building, and it has to be sooner than later."
Thomas A. Kucharski, president of Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, said the site remains at the top of the list of downtown addresses that are ripe for an economic renaissance.
"It's obviously a strategic site, but it's a difficult site," he said. "It's disappointing things didn't work out within Uniland's time frame, but I still believe there's a way to inject public dollars into the right private project there."
Businessman Richard Taylor, the building's owner, confirmed that it is back on the market and that he wants to find a reuse.
"This building is one of the most significant buildings in Western New York," he said. "It has played a part in just about everybody's life who grew up here. Every opportunity to save this building through redevelopment should be explored."
George C. Hamberger of Hunt Commercial Real Estate, who has marketed the building on Taylor's behalf since 1999, said he started showing it again last week. "I've always felt the right buyer is out there," he said. "Maybe it will take someone with a great vision and a lot of cash, or maybe someone with a great vision who can leverage a lot of government incentives, but it's going to happen."
Uniland's expired purchase contract with Taylor was for $2.9 million, but the building has attracted several offers in the $4.5 million to $5 million range over the last five years. Those deals unraveled for various reasons.