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Looking for Buffalo’s Broadway-Fillmore section to become ‘a destination again’

Dr. Fadi Dagher, a doctor-turned-developer, has embarked on a buying and construction spree to capitalize on opportunities near Buffalo’s waterfront and Medical Campus while transforming parts of an East Side neighborhood.

He and his team are starting multiple projects along Broadway, near Fillmore Avenue, bringing new residential, office, retail and light-industrial uses to two vacant former department stores and a third empty manufacturing building.

“We want to invest the time to help Broadway-Fillmore become a destination again,” said Maggie Hamilton, real estate development manager for Cedarland Development Group, Dagher’s new company that oversees his projects. “We just want to draw people from the entire metro area to the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood.”

Dagher, a native of Lebanon, is a former Kaleida Health surgeon who has largely changed careers to real estate after more than 25 years in medicine. He began investing in North Buffalo and the Town of Tonawanda, where he owns 10 single-family homes and duplexes, as well as a retail strip plaza. In October 2007, he bought vacant land on Transit Road in Clarence, where he intends to build a 14-unit condominium project.

In October 2012, he partnered with Middle Eastern hospitality firm Byblos Hospitality to buy the Holiday Inn Grand Island for $4.4 million. He sold his interest in 2013 and bought a pair of Waterfront Village buildings at 50 and 60 Lakefront Blvd., and later added a third at 40 LaRiviere Drive. The three-story buildings have about 50 tenants that employ 1,200 people, largely with Synacor, Time Warner and Travelers Insurance, along with various engineering and construction firms.

But Hamilton said Dagher wants to convert the waterfront buildings into “more of an urban neighborhood,” with retailers and neighborhood services taking up the first floors of the three buildings, while offices stay upstairs. There’s also talk of replacing the sprawling parking lots with ramps, to allow for more new construction while preserving parking.

“We’re not talking about overnight changes,” she said, citing more of a 10- to 20-year vision as leases turn over. “There is an opportunity to create a new neighborhood with new and exciting features.”

Additionally, Dagher intended to convert the former Travelodge at 1159 Main St., near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, into a Sleep Inn. Now, he’s considering a multistory, mixed-use building, with retail, office, and residential space, and possibly a hotel spread among up to eight stories. Cedarland is seeking up to $2 million in Better Buffalo Fund money for such a transit-oriented development, Hamilton said.

But much of his focus now centers on his investments near the Medical Campus and on the East Side, through Cedarland – named for the evergreen trees in his native country. He obtains financing through both traditional loans and a mixture of his own equity and both U.S. and foreign investors.

Dagher plans a $4 million redevelopment of the former Eckhardt’s Department Store building, a 42,000-square-foot, three-story facility, with a full-size windowless basement.

“I really think the potential for Broadway-Fillmore is incredible,” said Hamilton, a former commercial real estate broker at CBRE-Buffalo who joined Dagher’s team. “It’s a very active community that just has a little bit of a density problem, but the potential is there.”

The sleek sandstone-facade building at the corner of Broadway and Fillmore has been vacant since 2004, after hosting multiple tenants over 90 years. Located at 950 Broadway, the early Art Moderne commercial building was designed by local architects Lawrence Bley and Duane Lyman for John H. Eckhardt’s growing retail business, and was built in 1940 by Metzger Brothers Construction, using granite, light-cream terra cotta, reinforced concrete and stainless steel. The curved-facade building later housed Gold Bond Department Store, Kobacker’s and eventually Sears before its days as a department store came to an end in 1957.

It was later converted into offices and used by the state Labor Department, which leased the first floor for its regional office, while a neighborhood-based education and job training program called 78 Restoration Corp. used the second floor for offices and classrooms.

Both moved out in 2004. The building’s finished basement and unfinished third floor, which was originally used for inventory and storage, have not been used in decades. Dagher bought it for $374,000.

Dagher plans a mixture of residential apartments, office space, and retail or community use. The project would include eight to 15 apartments on the second and third floors.The second floor would also have about 6,000 square feet of office space, Hamilton said. The first floor, with its storefront windows, would feature a mix of office and retail space, “but we really want to focus on opening it back up to what it was like when it was a department store,” she said.

The project would use historic tax credits, and Dagher will seek adaptive-reuse tax breaks from the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, and a property tax cut through the city. Cedarland hopes to submit formal plans to the city by early summer, and construction could begin as soon as the project is approved, with the first tenants moving in by 2017.

Cedarland also owns the nearby former Sattler’s Department Store building at 998 Broadway, which was later occupied by Kmart, but has also been vacant for years. He acquired the 90,000-square-foot building, located directly across from the Broadway Market, for $600,000. Dagher hasn’t finalized long-term plans, but for now, he intends to lease the rear of the facility as storage space for a tenant, while launching a summertime “flea market” in the rest. The proposed East Side Flea Buffalo is tentatively slated to open April 30.

Farther down the street, he bought 642 Broadway, a two-story, 22,000-square-foot concrete industrial building.

Originally built as a German brewery, it was later used by other businesses, including an auto parts store. Cedarland is spending $400,000 to repair the crumbling rear wall and sprinkler system, rewire the building and prepare it for light industrial use.

“We’re trying our hardest to get it fixed,” Hamilton said. “It’s a real treasure, a diamond in the rough.”