Douglas Jemal wasn't kidding when he said he's serious about redeveloping Buffalo's tallest building.
Less than three weeks after Jemal first submitted his proposal, the Buffalo Planning Board on Monday night gave the green light to his initial remake of One Seneca Tower, designed to reignite the plaza and lower levels with 183 residential apartments and a host of retailers and restaurants.
That was the only municipal approval Jemal's Douglas Development Corp. needed to get started, other than routine building permits.
Now the veteran Washington, D.C., developer is hoping to get the first shovels in the ground within six to eight weeks, followed by 18 to 24 months of construction.
He has owned the building since late September.
"It's an absolute pleasure to be here. We're extremely excited to get on with this project," Jemal said, after the board's unanimous vote. "It's very, very challenging. It's very, very exciting. And we love the city and we love the citizens of Buffalo."
The developer, who attended the meeting with one of his top deputies, Paul Millstein, also said he has put in an offer to buy a home locally, where he will stay for the duration of the project. He would not say if the home is in Buffalo or the suburbs.
Jemal, the No. 2 commercial real estate developer in Washington, with a record of projects under his belt, bought the vacant 38-story office tower out of foreclosure.
He paid $12.6 million for the 1.2-million-square-foot building and the accompanying five-story parking ramp across Washington Street. He said he intended to completely renovate the complex into a mixed-use project.
He unveiled detailed plans in late January to create a residential and retail community in the base of the office tower, including the two four-story annex buildings that sit alongside it on the concrete plaza. He would leave the rest of the tower empty for now, until market demand drives other plans.
Specifically, Jemal intends to dramatically reshape the 3.5-acre concrete plaza area and east annex -- turning it into a 43,000-square-foot multi-level retail mall, with four levels of apartments above new storefronts, including a new penthouse level with roof terraces. The company would construct new 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.
No leases have been signed as yet for the retail space, but Jemal noted that his company has relationships with over 500 retail tenants in Washington, including many of the nation's largest. "Build it, and they will come. So we have to build it first," he said. "Everything is a gamble... We believe the building will get occupied."
Meanwhile, the west annex wing would become 150,000 square feet of apartments, dubbed Lofts @ Seneca One, with 183 studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units, renting at market rates.
Douglas Development also plans to construct a new single-story retail building on the east plaza next to the tower, with 9,000 square feet, and will convert 6,150 square feet of the third floor of the tower into more retail space, accessible directly from outside.
"The idea here is fairly simple," said Adam Walters, an attorney with Phillips Lytle LLC, who is representing Jemal and Douglas Development. "The plaza as it currently exists is very pedestrian-unfriendly, very wind-challenged. The idea is to overcome that through design."
Even the loading docks and parking offices would be converted to retail space to "change the look and feel of the building dramatically," said Walters, whose office was in the tower for 17 years.
The project also includes new landscaping, benches, street lighting, patios and canopies to encourage pedestrian traffic and create meeting areas, as well as a pedestrian bridge crossing Main Street next to the tower's north face.
And Douglas will put in a new driveway at the north end - off Seneca Street and connecting to Main - to provide easier access to the front of the complex, including for pick-up and drop-off.
The substantial renovations also include changing up the facade of the building at the lower levels, using a combination of stucco, brick, tile veneer and metal panels, as well as more glass and store canopies.
"We're really talking about freshening up the look of the building," Walters said.
There was little debate by the Planning Board.
"It's so ugly right now, anything's an improvement," said Planning Board member Michael Rembis.