Until recently, anyone looking at One Seneca Tower from outside could be excused for wondering just how much construction was actually happening.
Crews had erected the steel frame of a pair of new retail buildings on the plaza level, and various pieces of equipment or vacuum tubes could occasionally be seen on the site. But there was little other visible evidence of progress in Douglas Jemal's ambitious remake of downtown Buffalo's most dominant complex.
The bulk of activity, however, was going on inside the two four-story Annex buildings on either side of the tower. That's where contractors made extensive progress during the winter in building out more than 100 new residential apartments.
Those units – primarily a mix of one-bedroom and studio units – are fully framed by metal studs, while the mechanical and plumbing systems are in place. Workers will begin installing drywall and ceilings next week, before they start with flooring and finishes.
"This looks rough right now, but it took a lot to get to this point," Jemal said.
The work is the first visible sign of progress on Jemal's efforts to bring new life to the 38-story tower – the tallest private-sector building in upstate New York – and the most prominent building in downtown Buffalo.
That building has been essentially vacant for more than four years, leaving a glut of unused office space – 1.2 million square feet in all – hanging over the Buffalo Niagara commercial real estate market and a lingering sign of Buffalo's decades of economic struggles.
Jemal's success – or failure – in reviving the 38-story tower and the surrounding plaza will have a major impact on both the local office market and the resurgence now taking place at the foot of Main Street around HarborCenter, Canalside, the Seneca Buffalo Casino and the Key Bank Center.
"The market at the end of the day is going to dictate what's going to happen," he said. "This is a big, great project. The most significant part of this whole project is what it's going to do to downtown Buffalo... The locals see a renaissance going on downtown and they're embracing it, and this is another step in that direction."
The developer has already indicated he plans to wait on any plan to redevelop the majority of the tower, preferring to focus his attention initially on making the plaza and lower levels vibrant enough to attract potential new users for the space above.
"There's been an awful lot done on the inside," Jemal said, during a tour for The Buffalo News. "We've been working inside all winter long doing what you're seeing now. It's not as if we've been standing still."
Besides the interior work, crews are now again working outside on the plaza level, where they are putting in new "curb cuts" for the curved driveways onto the site while also setting up the rest of the retail spaces.
Jemal and his team now expect the retail "boxes" or storefronts to be completed and ready for leasing by September, while the apartments will be finished and ready for occupancy by November. And while they don't have any tenants signed on yet, they aren't worried about filling up the residential space quickly once they're ready to start leasing.
"We've got tons of interest of people wanting to move in here," Jemal said. "The least of our problems will be to lease these units."
Jemal, a prominent and successful Washington, D.C.-based developer, bought the vacant 38-story office tower and plaza complex out of foreclosure in September 2016 for $12.6 million, and unveiled his first proposal for a $120 million mixed-use redevelopment of the concourse level and annex buildings just a few months later. The project entailed a blend of apartments, storefronts and restaurants that would fill up the lower level space, while adding two new buildings to the plaza.
The plans were quickly approved by the city in February 2017, although they have been modified a couple of times since then – including this week.
"I'm designing it on a daily basis," Jemal said. "You're living the project. This is not something you can put on a piece of paper, and we're doing this. It's not a little home remodel. It's an urban revitalization remodel."
Wind barriers and retail kiosks, part of the initial plans, were dropped. The number of apartments was scaled back. More space was set aside for retail and restaurants.
Jemal also felt there wasn't enough light inside the plaza level entrance to the tower, where the long escalator brings visitors up to the main lobby. So he directed workers to break through the solid marble walls on both the inside and outside of the tower. He wanted to put in a window that would allow more natural light.
But after they did, it really didn't make enough of a difference.
"This is something we looked at to create more light, but it doesn't do anything, so we're covering it up again," Jemal explained. "You don't need it. You're opening up Pandora's Box for no reason, but these are things you have to take a look at."
Jemal has taken a highly active role in the project, even purchasing a house on Nottingham Terrace and coming to Buffalo at least twice a week to review the progress.
"It's a very, very interesting building, and you have to spend time here to get to understand it," he said. "It's not something that's quick. You've got to understand all the ins and outs of it, and it can get away from you very very quickly, so you have to pay attention to it. Every little area affects something else here."
Current plans call for 104 loft-style apartments, down from 137 previously and 183 originally. They will be located on the four floors of the West Annex building and one floor of the South Annex building, which are connected through the tower in between.
The apartments — with their tall ceilings and an "industrial" and "very hip" feel — will average about 550 square feet in size. They will typically rent for $1,000 to $1,100 per month, which is "not a big number for someone to live in a new unit," Jemal said.
"I catered to a living downtown, a working downtown," he said. "I wanted to price the units so you could afford to live downtown and activate the downtown corridor."
Most of the units are one-bedroom and studio apartments, but there are also a few larger ones "where we were pigeonholed in a corner and nothing would work but a large unit," he said. Each apartment will include solid-surface countertops, stainless-steel appliances and "subway tiles" for the design. And the building is already soundproofed.
"There's not a bad unit in the place. Look at the natural light you have in here," Jemal said, gesturing out the windows, and pointing up the views of Canalside, the highway and the water. "People in Buffalo love the outdoors."
The top floor of the South Annex building is actually flush with the lobby floor of the tower, and houses the cafeteria and kitchen space that Jemal now wants to retain for the benefit of future tower tenants. The bottom two levels, below the single floor of apartments, are a single 25,000-square-foot open retail space with 20-foot ceilings, which could be either subdivided for multiple tenants or possibly used for a large grocery store.
The rest of the retail space is largely in the two new structures now being built atop the plaza, but it's not yet spoken for. Jemal said he has begun talking to a few potential eateries, including Rachel's Mediterranean and Ted's Hot Dogs, as well as national retail tenants. He already has a relationship with Trader Joe's, and plans to talk with them, among others.
He's also traveling next weekend to a major shopping center conference in Las Vegas, and "we'll be speaking to retailers there."
"They know what's going on over here and they want to be part of it," he said. "Everyone in our community and our industry knows that Douglas Development is in Buffalo."
But he's mostly planning to wait until he has more to show prospective tenants. "That's the last part I'm going to put together," he said. "Most retailers, you have to show them something more concrete than we have right now. I'd rather build my field of dreams and show it to you as a finished project."
Finally, workers are installing the second of two new vehicle entrances on the north side of the plaza at Seneca Street, where cars will enter, swing around a driveway marked by bollards and planters, and then exit back onto Main Street. That's designed to allow residents, retail patrons or future office tenants to come up closer to the building's entrance for drop-off, especially in bad weather.
"You really want to bring this energy here from Canalside and all these office buildings you have over here. You want them to come and have a place to eat, shop and work, and live," Jemal said. "It's not going to be a bunker anymore. You want it to be for people. ... I want there to be a reason to live, work and stay downtown, which is what we've done."