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One Seneca Tower buyer tours Buffalo’s tallest building, sees ‘ton of potential’

As he stood in front of One Seneca Tower on Wednesday, surrounded by a small army of his executives, Douglas Jemal said he was “absolutely” excited about the potential to revive the city’s tallest building.

“It’s magnificent, and I’ll make it even more magnificent,” the Washington developer said on the plaza. “It’s like a beautiful woman. I love it.”

Following a tour of the inside of the vacant 38-story tower, including a trip to its upper floors for the view, Jemal cited “its massiveness, its height, its structure and its dominance and prominence in the center of the city” as most appealing to him.

He still has the task of redeveloping the tower’s 1.2 million-square-feet of empty space.

“More than anything else, I like the opportunity to make a difference, with the building and the city,” he said. “I like bringing things back.”

Jemal last week agreed to pay more than $12 million to buy the 44-year-old structure, which dominates the Buffalo skyline as the tallest privately owned building in upstate New York. The purchase is expected to close in mid-October, at which point the building will be back in the hands of a developer with deep pockets.

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Buffalo’s hope for One Seneca Tower rests on unconventional developer

[Gallery: Projects in Washington, D.C., by Douglas Development]

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But the purchase isn’t the biggest or most expensive challenge ahead. The tower, completed in 1972 as the home of Marine Midland Bank and later HSBC Bank USA, has been virtually empty since its two largest tenants – HSBC and law firm Phillips Lytle LLP – decamped for new and renovated space down the street three years ago. And its future has been in doubt since LNR Partners foreclosed on the prior owners and took possession of the building in October 2015.

Experts, including representatives of the Urban Land Institute as well as local real estate leaders, say the tower would have to be redeveloped into a mixed-use project, because the market can’t handle that much empty office space. But the cost of such a conversion is expected to range from $100 million to $200 million. And that’s been a major deterrent for other potential buyers until now.

Jemal’s Douglas Development Corp. is the second-largest commercial real estate developer in the Washington, D.C. area, with some 130 properties and over 9 million square feet of leasable space. He specializes particularly in historic and adaptive reuse projects involving older and underutilized urban structures, and has said that One Seneca fits his interests perfectly.

The cement-panel building, designed by the architectural firm of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, has been derided by its critics as an unattractive stone fortress, and described alternatively as a waffle-iron or “the box that the M&T Center came in.” But that didn’t deter Jemal.

“There’s always someone that’s going to say they don’t like something, and there’s always some people that are going to be naysayers,” Jemal said. “But the building in itself was built by a phenomenal architect, and it has a ton of potential. It just needs a little bit of a makeover.”

His plans for the building are still evolving. But he reiterated his “back-of-the-envelope” projections. “I see one-third residential, one-third hotel and one-third office, and I see a good part of it retail in this courtyard,” he said. “It’s got a tremendous amount of opportunity.”

Reviving a rooftop restaurant from long ago is also a possibility, he added. “Why not? All the options are open at this point.”

Jemal, who is spending Wednesday and Thursday in a series of meetings with city officials and other local leaders, previously said he would move to Buffalo for at least the first six months to focus full-time on his new venture. But on Wednesday he said he “might be here longer.”

“I like it here. I like the wind and I like the cold, and I like Buffalo and I like the people in Buffalo. They’re good people. I love the city, and I love the opportunity and the challenge to do something like this.”

email: jepstein@buffnews.com

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