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New vision for AM&A's site Plan combines office, residential, retail uses

The dilapidated former AM&A's complex would be turned into a $38 million residential, office and retail center under a plan advanced by a local businessman who is working with the owner of the long-vacant structures.

Developers concede there are many hurdles to overcome, including finalizing a development plan and pulling together financing. Further complicating the picture is a pending court case stemming from owner Richard Taylor's refusal to allow city inspectors to check the status of code violations in a complex that is situated on prime downtown real estate.

But John Giardino, chief executive officer of Centerstone Development, which is working with Taylor on a reuse plan, said he's cautiously optimistic the project can come to fruition within two to three years.

"I'm hoping I can lead an effort to get everyone moving in the right direction," Giardino said.

The preliminary design includes 74 apartments and condominiums on the second through the 10th floors, and in an adjacent warehouse on Washington Street. The residential units would wrap around the perimeter of a building that would be given a new terra cotta facade. The penthouses on the top floor would have outside terraces that offer what developers called "spectacular views" of downtown. The core of the building would have between 90,000 and 110,000 square feet of office space, which would get sunlight from a "light cone" constructed in the middle of the complex. The innovative design would form an eight-story atrium that would give the complex the appearance of being two buildings.

The 30-foot-wide light well would solve a key problem in readapting the old department store for new uses, developers said. The huge floor plates deprive most space of natural lighting, a factor that undermined the building's marketability for office or residential projects.

The conceptual plan also includes 20,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor.

The roof of the main complex would include a glass enclosure to create an all-weather space, a pool, fitness center or other amenities.

Bernard Zyscovich is president of Zyscovich Inc., an architectural and urban design firm based in Miami that is working on the AM&A's reuse plan. He believes retooling the structure in a creative way to make it more suitable for residential units and office space will be well-received.

"Design sells. If we can create a building that has something new about it and is attractive, we're going to attract people," he said.

Zyscovich's firm employs 120 people and has had a hand in numerous projects throughout the country that involved transforming decaying properties into thriving mixed-use complexes. Giardino said Zyscovich helped to turn around Florida's South Beach.

Developers briefed Mayor Byron W. Brown on the project this week. He called Zyscovich's design an "innovative" concept that wisely embraces a mixed-use theme.

While city officials liked the preliminary plans, they said they have yet to see a formal development agreement between Taylor and Giardino. They added that developers made it clear the project is contingent upon getting commitments from tenants for a significant amount of the space.

Developers have not disclosed projected rental rates or condominium sale prices. The units would range from 800 square feet to 2,200 square feet. Another unanswered question involves the type of partnership between Taylor and Centerstone Development. Giardino said an agreement must still be negotiated.

The city would likely be asked to work with developers in making some improvements along Main Street, but officials said the infrastructure issues are premature until a development plan is proposed.

Last month, the city filed a lawsuit in Housing Court after Taylor ignored inspectors' demands to gain entry to the complex. A Feb. 7 exterior inspection found numerous problems.

City officials said they have no idea whether Taylor's company fixed more than 100 violations found during previous interior inspections dating back two years. Judge Henry Nowak is scheduled to consider the case next month. City officials stressed the importance of getting into the building, even if it means obtaining a court order to do so.

Richard M. Tobe, Buffalo's commissioner of economic development, permits and inspections, said it might be possible to make a distinction between violations that require immediate repairs and issues that could be rectified as part of a long-term development plan. Taylor did not return calls to discuss the project.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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