Several months after a dispute over payments led to a suspension of activity, workers have resumed cleanup of the former AM&A's Department Store in downtown Buffalo, in preparation for converting the complex into a Wyndham hotel by early next year.
The New York City-based owners of the mammoth building brought in a local construction veteran to take over the redevelopment effort on site and move the $70 million project forward.
The Chinese-led ownership group, Landco H&L, also hired a new asbestos abatement firm and a local Buffalo-based air monitoring company, both of whom started work about 10 days ago.
Brooklyn-based Clean Air Abatement is responsible for completing the asbestos abatement work that was started by a prior contractor, Long Island-based Tristate Cleaning Solutions. Tristate, which had been hired last summer, left the job in February amid a fight with the building owners over payments and legal threats, leaving a significant part of the job unfinished.
The three-month contract with Clean Air Abatement also includes handling the bulk of the interior demolition work. Meanwhile, AMD Environmental Consultants., headquartered just up Main Street from the AM&A's building itself, will oversee the air quality and project management during the work, to ensure safety for the workers.
"As of now, they're performing the job perfectly. Their only task that they have to perform is to clean up what Tristate left behind," said Brian Frost, the new CEO of Loung Construction, who is now running the overall project locally. "This company has to go and re-clean the entire building. They're going to clean out the building and get it ready to build out."
The cleanup work should be completed by early fall, but Frost said he hopes to start interior construction much sooner, as the contractors clear one floor at a time. While there's still significant work to be done, he said he still hopes to have the hotel open by early spring of 2018 at the latest.
"I want to move forward as quickly as possible ... I have a very aggressive plan," he said, noting that the building has already sat vacant for too many years. "The buildout is easier than most people expect. You're leaving all the existing finishes, and just refurbishing them and finishing them up."
Landco, consisting of investors from New York City and China, bought the deteriorating AM&A building in 2014 for $2.775 million, and announced plans for a major renovation of the 375,000-square-foot complex, centered around an unnamed hotel for Asian tour groups visiting Niagara Falls.
The project has evolved somewhat, and now features the 340-room Wyndham Buffalo Hotel, along with two restaurants, a basement pool and spa, and a 40,000-square-foot banquet and meeting space on the second floor. The building would also include 6,000 to 8,000 square feet of retail space, six apartments for hotel management, and possibly some office space. A 10-story atrium would be carved in the center, to open up the building interior.
The project is being financed by a mix of private dollars, including major investments from China through the federal EB-5 visa program, as well as state and federal historic tax credits. That funding has at times been in doubt, but Frost insisted that it's all in place.
"They're all set with their money," he said. "I've seen the books, and I know the money is available."
The hiring of Frost himself follows more than a year of fits and starts on the massive project, as prior stumbles by out-of-town and even foreign operators unfamiliar with Buffalo contributed to significant delays. That, in turn, raised questions about whether the work would even get done.
The group, originally led by Lily Li, is now under the control of Billy Bao, but neither speaks English well and both have stayed out of the public eye, leaving project engineer John Schenne of Buffalo as their spokesperson until now. Indeed, Loung itself was formed only a year ago, specifically for this project, with its office based alongside that of Schenne inside the Hotel @ the Lafayette.
That's where Frost comes in. The Buffalo native is a 25-year construction veteran who formerly worked for Savarino Companies. He was hired in January as a superintendent for Loung, but recently assumed full responsibility for the company's operations, as he works to teach its owners how to do business in Buffalo, compared to New York City. "What you do in New York, you can't do here," he said.
Frost said he intends to find local contractors to handle much of the job, and expects to have at least 70 workers and as many as 150 on site at any given time once the work begins in earnest. For now, though, he's just waiting to get in there with his engineers.
"I have to go through and make sure everything's structurally sound," he said. "I have to see exactly what the building consists of."