Douglas Jemal, the new owner of One Seneca Tower in downtown Buffalo, wants to start work on redeveloping the vacant 38-story building within the next four months.
The work would ultimately bring over 200 residential apartments, a grocery and other retail to the plaza level, before tackling the rest.
Just four months after taking ownership of Buffalo's tallest structure -- and catching many observers by surprise -- Jemal filed an initial site plan application with the Buffalo Planning Board on Thursday.
No one expected such a fast turnaround.
No matter what happens with the skyline behemoth, it's sure to have a major effect on many other aspects of the Buffalo scene, from housing to office space.
Jemal said he wants to move on the project quickly. He is already taking bids for asbestos abatement and other preliminary work.
"We’re anxious to get started," Jemal said. "We’re not here playing games. We bought the building."
Jemal, owner of Washington, D.C.-based Douglas Development Corp. and the No. 2 commercial real estate developer in the nation's capital, plans to start on the bottom and work his way up as he remakes One Seneca into a mixed-use complex.
He said he intends to convert the tower's west annex wing into more than 50,000 square feet of residential space, dubbed Lofts @ Seneca One, with a mixture of market-rate studio and one-bedroom rental units, as well as some two-bedroom apartments.
At the same time, he will drastically reshape the vast 3.5-acre concrete plaza area and east annex, turning it into a 75,000-square-foot, multi-level retail mall, with "a lot of different seating areas and outdoor areas."
That's designed to reactivate that area, making it more attractive and friendly to pedestrians and visitors to Canalside.
"It’s a blank slate right now. It’s a skating rink. It’s got nothing out there. It’s a sea of concrete," he said, referring to the empty courtyard plaza area. "All it needed was a sense of friendliness and that’s what we’re showing you, a friendly building with some street appeal."
The company will construct additional brick-and-concrete storefronts that will jut out from the concrete edifice, hosting some combination of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, a market, a fitness center, clothing stores and other establishments.
"I think you need a lot of retail here. You’re a retail desert at the present time, and if you’re bringing residents downtown, you’re going to want to have services," he said. "We’d love to have a grocery store. We do need a grocery store. I’d work to get a grocery store."
In the meantime, he said, he will hold off on the rest of the 1.2 million-square-foot tower, which will remain empty for now until he and his team can sort out market demand for office space, a possible boutique hotel or additional residential space.
"We’re going to do that last," he said.
The tower at one time had a restaurant on the 38th floor, but he also would not commit to restoring that.
"You’re going to wait to see what the market is," he said. "This is a big building... You just don’t go picking spots on the 38th floor. You have to see where the market is."
In all, he projects the ultimate cost will be about $100 million -- roughly $100 per square foot -- although his budget is not final.
That's half of what some experts have cited as a likely cost.
"Everything is subject to change," he said. "These are preliminary plans, conceptual plans."
But they're drawing attention and applause already.
"Douglas Jemal and his team at Douglas Development have a very creative vision for how to reactivate One Seneca Tower," said Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown. "I am pretty excited about the concepts that they’ve shared with me, some of the things I’ve seen, and some of the ideas they have for this building that are pretty unique."
Jemal unveiled his One Seneca proposal at the annual MarketView event for CBRE-Buffalo, the local office of the world's largest commercial real estate brokerage. His keynote address before 100 guests consisted largely of a 10-minute video, illustrating his company's success and reputation in Washington, as well as his general hopes for Buffalo. His marketing director, Laurene MacTaggart, is a Williamsville East High School graduate.
"I love this city. I love the community," Jemal said, after he was introduced by Shana Stegner, CBRE managing director. "I love your love and passion for Buffalo, and it is contagious."
"To walk around Washington, D.C., with Douglas Jemal, is like walking around with a rock star. Everybody knows him," said Mayor Brown, who has visited Jemal's offices and projects in Washington several times with his economic development team. "Certainly he is somebody that has a heart and passion for people, for that community."
Jemal, a Brooklyn native, has accumulated a track record and reputation for tackling ambitious projects that others have shied away from, reviving buildings and neighborhoods in Washington that are now populated and trendy. He's also known for adaptive reuse of older buildings, and received a preservation award for his work.
"He has been recognized as a visionary developer in that community, as someone with a passion for preservation, which is one of the reasons that he is so fond of this community, because he loves great architecture," Brown said.
The company currently owns 10 million square feet of space with another 3 million under development. Jemal has taken Buffalo by storm with his arrival.
The 45-year-old structure includes the tower, two annexes, four-level parking garage and a five-level parking ramp across Washington Street. The city holds title to the underground garage until 2022.
Brown expressed confidence in the developer's ability to get the job done.
"Douglas Jemal is the real deal. He knows what he’s doing. He’s a man of great vision and creativity, and he wants to bring that vision and creativity to the city of Buffalo," the mayor said. "He seems to be a person that says what he means and means what he says."
The site plan, which was not available Thursday evening, will get its first airing at the Planning Board's Feb. 13 meeting. It includes the entire structure, but the initial redevelopment covers only the lower levels.
Once approved, Jemal predicted work would begin with asbestos abatement in about four months, followed by about seven months to a year of construction and development.
The full effort could take as long as five years, depending on market demand, he said. When complete, he said, the combination of uses could create more than 1,000 jobs, he said.
"Everything’s predicated on where the market is," he said. "We want to see it happen just as quickly as we possibly can."