When Vince Reda listened to National Public Radio's two-hour special about Buffalo on July 1, he not only learned a lot about the city, it got him thinking about potential investment opportunities.
Three months later, the New York City-based businessman has been named the designated developer to turn the boarded up West Huron Hotel, formerly known as the Lake Hotel and a den of prostitution, into a market-rate apartment building.
It was only a matter of weeks between his father's "discovery" of Buffalo and a field trip to Western New York to check out potential investment properties, said Reda's son, Serge, a partner in the family's real estate development business.
When they pulled up in front of the hotel, located between South Elmwood Avenue and Niagara Street, they found what they were looking for.
Serge Reda, who has a master's degree in architecture, was struck by the faded, three-story building's scale and design.
"Even in its current state of disrepair, it has a beauty and grace about it," Reda said. "And it's right at the edge of the Chippewa Street neighborhood. It has great potential as a market-rate apartment building."
And while the Redas have yet to get a tour of the inside of city-owned building, they've been granted "designated developer" status by the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency to take over the site. They plan to be back in Buffalo in the next two weeks, accompanied by an engineer, to evaluate the building's structure and interior from top to bottom.
"We're really excited about the building, but there's a lot we don't know about it until we get inside. If it's at all like we expect, there will be a lot of work to do, but many of the design elements will still be intact and restorable," Reda said.
The building's checkered past, as a hotbed of downtown prostitution activity as recently as 1997, also adds flavor to the big rehab project.
"If the walls could talk, I guess," Reda said. "We're planning on something a little less notorious."
Because they've yet to make a full evaluation of the structure, and the project has yet to reach the preliminary design phase, the potential developer declined to put a price tag on bringing it back to life as a 10- to 14-unit apartment building. But based on the recent renovation of the nearby Watkins Building, another turn-of-the-century hotel at 170 W. Chippewa St., which was just converted to a six-unit apartment building at a cost of $350,000, the more-ambitious Huron Street project could easily run into the $750,000 to $1 million range.
If all goes according to plan, the building will feature what Reda described as "simple, clean-lined apartments, with smart designs and layout." The developer, whose portfolio primarily includes high-end Manhattan condominiums, plans to draw on decor design skills he honed working for Ralph Lauren.
"This is going to be something very different for us. In New York, we do high-end, 3,000-square-foot condos that sell for $1.75 million and more," he said. "This is going to be an interesting departure."
The Watkins Building also offers a hint of how the former West Huron Hotel might be received in the downtown housing market. The Watkins, with apartments renting for between $700 and $730 per month, opened to tenants in September after massive renovations, and is already 85 percent leased.
After hearing the NPR program about Buffalo in July, the Redas hooked up with Carole Holcberg, of Buffalo's Holcberg Real Estate, to view several buildings in the city's downtown, Allentown and lower West Side neighborhoods.
Mayor Anthony M. Masiello said he's excited that a development team like the Redas would take the time to come to Buffalo.
"We're still a well-kept secret," Masiello said. "We've had a few outside nibbles, like Kissling Interests, but we'd like to see more. And we will as the word gets out. There's room for a lot more."
Kissling, a family-owned, Manhattan-based real estate company, has purchased nearly $16 million in local properties since 1999, making substantial capital improvements along the way.
Reda said while Buffalo is brand new territory for his family's company, so far, the city has left a very favorable impression.
"The people we've met have been wonderful, and the city itself has so much potential," he said.