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Benderson buys major office park in Amherst

Benderson Development Co. has acquired a major suburban office park in Amherst near the Interstate 290 interchange with Niagara Falls Boulevard, adding more than 400,000 square feet of office space to its Western New York portfolio.

Benderson paid $12.5 million to buy Amherst Commerce Park at 4226-4250 Ridge Lea Road from the Bernard I. Obletz Trust, which has been steadily selling its Western New York holdings in the last couple of years.

The complex, which includes 17 buildings, sits on 49 acres on the eastern side of Ridge Lea and North Bailey Avenue, north of Maple Road, and just down the street from Niagara Falls Boulevard, where it meets I-290.

It’s also just across from Benderson’s Boulevard Consumer Square, a 64-acre big-box retail development, and just east of the firm’s 17-acre Amherst Development Park, giving Benderson a significant presence in that section of the region’s biggest suburb.

“It was an opportunity purchase for us,” said Benderson Vice President Eric L. Recoon. “We own significant holdings in the immediate vicinity. … It’s very challenging to secure control of a parcel that size in the heart of Amherst.”

The biggest tenant in the complex is First Niagara Financial Group, which occupies about 100,000 square feet, or one-fourth of the total space. Those facilities had previously been taken up by Citigroup’s Global Transaction Services operation, which moved several years ago to a new facility constructed in Uniland Development Co.’s CrossPoint Business Park.

“Until you sort of drive through, you don’t realize how deep it is or how far back it goes,” Recoon said of the complex. “It’s much deeper and denser than you imagine from doing the drive-by on Ridge Lea or North Bailey.”

The park was originally built decades ago as the Ridge Lea annex for the University at Buffalo, when UB had only the South Campus in Buffalo but was starting to build its North Campus in Amherst. The university needed classroom space, so it built out the initial buildings in the park until the North Campus was ready. It was meant to be temporary.

“UB was there for probably longer than they envisioned,” Recoon said. “It morphed into a business park. It’s been a significant site.”

The Obletz family, which controls First Amherst Development Group, has owned the property for years through the family trust but has sold off four primary holdings in the region in the last two years. Benderson bought Evanstown Plaza a year ago, Frank J. Campofelice bought Williamsville Executive Center at 5000 Main St., and the Rochester-based DelMonte Hotel Group bought the Courtyard by Marriott hotel at 4100 Sheridan Drive, near Harlem Road. All were managed, but not owned, by First Amherst.

“The Obletz family decided to divest some of their holdings in the area, so we were able to secure a deal,” Recoon said. “They’ve been fine stewards of the property for many years, but they were looking to move on.”

Other Obletz family properties have been purchased by First Amherst itself as part of a long-term family buyout of key properties in the region that had been owned by the trust or other relatives, who wanted to focus their attention and investments elsewhere.

First Amherst is a management and development firm founded in 1958 by Bernard Obletz and now owned solely by Benjamin Obletz, his grandson. It still owns and manages a separate portfolio of properties in the area, and Benjamin Obletz said that it has become a leading player in multifamily residential space in downtown Buffalo. He said it is currently involved in several new projects in the city that he would not yet disclose, as well as the new Knights on Delaware building at 506 Delaware Ave.

“First Amherst as a company is very strong today. First Amherst is alive and well and looking at a lot of new opportunities. It’s a very good time,” Benjamin Obletz said. “We’re thrilled to be involved with a lot of the things that are happening downtown.”

But he declined to buy the four properties sold by the trust to Benderson and others because they didn’t fit his interests. “It was just a long-term plan that’s been put in place where some properties I was interested in I acquired,” Obletz said.

Recoon said Benderson officials are still trying to determine their future plans for the property, which includes some aging buildings. But he said the developer does expect to eventually redevelop the property into a mixed-use project.

“It’s safe to say that at some point in the future, some of those buildings that have outlived their useful life will likely come down, and we do foresee a plan that includes some of the existing structures as well as some new facilities,” Recoon said.

“It’s a little premature to talk about specifics now about what will occur. But it’s safe to say all existing tenant leases will be honored.”

No firm decisions have been made, he said, but both retail and residential uses are likely options.

“We’re considering all options at this point, but there’s the logical play for both of those uses on the site, because it’s a very large tract of land,” Recoon said. “We think we can do a great job capitalizing on some of the dynamics of this site. The visibility from the 290 and the ease of access from the Niagara Falls Boulevard interchange off the 290 are amazing elements to have associated with the site.

“It’ll be fun and certainly exciting.”