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Abatement work to start in spring on AM&A's site

One of downtown Buffalo's best-known former retail addresses is poised for a $60 million conversion to residences, a complicated overhaul that will take at least two years.

The new owners of the former Adam, Meldrum & Anderson department store, at 377 Main St., will kick off the project by gutting the sprawling, 10-story complex and removing all hazardous materials. The abatement work, which will start in spring and take three to four months, is expected to cost more than $2 million.

"It's a real mess in there, but we knew that going in," said Richard Libby, a principal with New Horizons Acquisitions, the Long Island developers who purchased the languishing structure in September.

Asbestos removal will be one of the biggest and most expensive tasks.

Vacant since 1999, the 270,000-square-foot complex -- actually five separate buildings tied together with a single facade on Main Street -- is considered structurally sound. But lack of heat and power in recent years resulted in severe damage to its plumbing and electrical systems.

Former owner Richard Taylor and his Carpe Diem Development Group still face a laundry list of building code charges in Buffalo Housing Court. The most significant, fire code violations, prompted inspectors to label the structure a "death trap."

Libby's group, which paid $2.05 million for the former store plus the warehouse behind it on Washington Street, has spent nearly $500,000 to correct the most serious code violations. The rest will be eliminated through the environmental and gutting efforts.

"We are really looking forward to getting it cleaned up and stripped down to the bones. Then we can get into the engineering and design phase and get our plans filed," Libby said. "Next year at this time, we should be rebuilding and bringing it back to life."

Under the current timetable, the first tenants would move into the redone building in 2009.

New Horizons, which recently completed the $35 million conversion of the century-old Broad Street Bank in Trenton, N.J., to 124 apartments with first-floor retail, sees similar potential for the deteriorated AM&A's flagship department store.

Current plans call for 180 "reasonably priced" apartments, with retail space on the first floor. The Washington Street warehouse will undergo a similar conversion.

While no preliminary drawings of exterior changes have been released, the developers have said they want to create "an appropriate and fitting" facade that is in keeping with the structure's past and its setting in the heart of downtown.

New Horizons also plans to be creative about paying for the expensive project. Historic tax credits, state Empire Zone and Community Renewal dollars and Green Building credits are all being explored as revenue streams.

George C. Hamberger, a Buffalo real estate broker who worked on Taylor's behalf for years to find a buyer, said he was confident New Horizons has the ability and interest to follow through.

"I showed this building to a lot of people over the years and had several purchase contracts expire when they changed their minds," Hamberger said. "These guys were different from the start, and I've seen no hesitation since they took ownership."

But parking poses a potential hitch. New Horizons hopes city development officials can help obtain a nearby site to build a parking garage for its residential tenants.

Richard Tobe, Buffalo's economic development chief, said he is aware of the parking issue.

"This is something we've heard from other developers who are bringing new housing and other projects downtown. We want to work on a solution," Tobe said.

That solution might be found in a recent update of the city's downtown urban development plan that specifically covers adaptive reuse of buildings in the area bounded by Washington, Clinton, Elm and Ellicott streets.

The changes, adopted by the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency in late November, were designed to encourage reinvestment in 10 structures within the mini-redevelopment zone, including the AM&A's warehouse, the Lafayette Hotel and the former Seneca Paper Co. warehouse at 210 Ellicott St., which is being converted to 30 apartments.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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