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AM&A’s conversion to hotel for Chinese tourists gets approved

The effort to convert the former AM&A’s department store complex in downtown Buffalo into a 300-room hotel for Chinese tourists overcame a major hurdle Tuesday after the city Planning Board gave its approval for the much-anticipated project.

Engineer John A. Schenne of East Aurora said work can now begin on three or four months of asbestos abatement before the construction begins in the fall, under F&B Construction of Catskill.

Officials are still in the process of selecting two or three asbestos cleanup firms, but the project at 377 Main St. is slated to be completed by December 2016.

“We can’t wait to start and get the job done,” he said. “The weather’s changed. It’s good weather for construction now.”

City officials had questioned the plans for tour buses and whether adequate sewer links existed, but Schenne said both the Department of Public Works and the Buffalo Sewer Authority had signed off.

The city approval marks a significant advancement for a project that has captivated attention since a mysterious group of investors called Landco H&L bought the long-vacant 10-story building from owner Apollon Group LLC for $2.775 million last fall.

The buyers, led by Lily Li of Flushing, want to spend between $50 million and $70 million to transform the 375,000-square-foot structure into a destination for tours from Asia and New York City.

Li and her group already own an agency in Queens with 110 tour buses that brings travelers to Niagara Falls. So the hotel would establish a base for the visitors to stay in Western New York for a few days. Schenne said she already owns two hotels, one on Wall Street in New York City and one in the Catskills, although he said he didn’t know the name of either one.

And the investors are backed by the fifth-largest real estate development group in China with significant real estate holdings in both in that country and in New York City, according to Schenne. So they’ll be using their own money, rather than bank loans or tax breaks other than historic tax credits.

Still, the proposal has been met with skepticism by many, in part because of the secrecy surrounding the investor group and also because of the region’s past experience with foreign investors coming in with grandiose plans that never materialize.

In this case, plans call for an independently named hotel to take up much of the building, with six one-bedroom apartments on the top floor for hotel staff. The company will cut a 10-story atrium into the middle to provide windows for interior rooms.

The building would also include two restaurants – a high-end Chinese restaurant to be operated by the investors, and an American-style eatery – on the first floor, plus 6,000 to 8,000 square feet of retail space. And there would be a large pool room and spa in the basement, plus a full medical clinic and related services on the second floor.

“This is a major project,” Schenne said.