Washington developer Douglas Jemal is pursuing tenants for One Seneca Tower that would create "hip places" he hopes would be a draw for downtown, but has no signed leases or firm commitments in place.
Jemal on Wednesday expressed high hopes and confidence about restoring vibrancy to the 38-story office building and the area around it, without harming other buildings as some rival landlords and developers have feared.
"Creativity is what I do. Designing is what I do. I want to make sure I do it right," Jemal said. "I'm not looking to go in there and beat up the office market because I bought it so cheap. I'm looking to make a flagship location for the whole downtown. I want the water to rise for all of Buffalo."
Jemal, however, refuted published reports that outdoor retailer REI has signed on as a tenant in the building.
Jemal had previously cited REI Inc. as an example of a retailer that he would like to see in the complex. He said he has "certainly" contacted the company about locating at One Seneca, but noted "they haven't committed to anything."
"I never said we have a deal with REI," he said. "We certainly presented it to REI and all the other major retailers in the country. We meet with all the major tenants. That's what we do."
Jemal described his effort to transform the tower and its adjacent annex buildings into a new mixed-use project as a long-term effort that will take several years.
"It's early on," he said. "This is not a spring race, this development project. It's going to have changes along the way ... It's going to evolve."
He says he's not seeking "fancy places" as tenants for the building, but rather "hip places that people want to be around." He said he's seeking the kind of stores and restaurants that would be a draw to the now-vacant building and downtown Buffalo, calling himself a "very committed developer that isn't in it for the money," but because "I fell in love with the community."
Jemal, owner of Douglas Development Corp., bought the 38-story office tower and accompanying parking ramp on Washington Street last October for $12.6 million. He later announced a major $120 million undertaking to bring 185 apartments and a significant amount of retail and restaurant space to the two annex buildings, while also redoing parts of the concrete plaza with new landscaping, wind walls and other features to make it more accessible and inviting for pedestrians.
He has since revised that plan, trimming the number of apartments in the annexes down to 100, while changing some of the residential space to allow for more retail. He also has added another four-story, mixed-use building with 42 apartments and another floor of retail space to the mix, as well as a separate one-story retail building, both adjacent to the tower. Those new plans were approved by the Buffalo Planning Board Monday night.
"I'm not going to do a Subway. I'm not going to do a 7-Eleven," he said. "It's not what's going to raise Buffalo's sea level. I'm very picky. I think we have a great piece of real estate, a great city and a great location. I'm going to make sure I do the right thing that elevates it."