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Seneca Tower developer’s enthusiasm runs counter to region’s skepticism

Slowly, Buffalonians may be coming to the conclusion that Douglas Jemal is not only serious about reviving the city’s tallest building, but that he will succeed. The developer’s enthusiasm certainly makes it seem like the real thing.

Jemal, who heads Douglas Development Corp. of Washington, D.C., visited the property last week. Closing on the deal is expected in October. He proclaimed One Seneca Tower, the nearly vacant 38-story behemoth that stands athwart Main Street in downtown Buffalo, to be “like a beautiful woman.”

“It’s magnificent,” he said, “and I’ll make it even more magnificent.”

Until recently, Buffalo’s primary personality trait was skepticism – even cynicism – about plans for its revival. The city seemed at one time to be the world capital of artist’s renderings that never got off the shelf. That began to change as the economy came back to life, thanks to the efforts of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, whose Buffalo Billion economic development program has changed not only the city’s trajectory, but its mindset.

But old habits die hard, and the idea that someone with the means and vision to redevelop the tower would buy it, and do it fairly quickly after the building emptied, is otherwise contrary to the painful lessons Buffalo learned – over and over again.

But that’s what has happened. Jemal has agreed to pay more than $12 million to buy the structure that just 11 years ago sold for $95 million. For that bargain, though, he will need to redevelop 1.2 million square feet of empty space, at an estimated cost of between $100 million and $200 million. Jemal’s pockets are deep enough for that and, significantly, so is his passion for the project and, he says, for Buffalo.

“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.”

It is likely going to take both money and commitment to see this project through. But he appears to be the real deal, as opposed to someone like Bashar Issa, the one-time savior of the Statler Hotel whose BSC Development of Buffalo was instead forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

And, of course, there are no guarantees. Unforeseen difficulties can arise in any project and in one that can be properly described as gargantuan, they are practically guaranteed. But that would be the case regardless of who bought the building.

With Jemal, at least, someone with the financial wherewithal, the desire and a track record is taking on the assignment. A lot is riding on it. Buffalo’s continuing revival relies, to some extent, upon ensuring that its tallest building does not become a deteriorating, vertical ghost town.

It’s a promising start.

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