They are four of downtown Buffalo’s best known – and most visible – buildings. They’ve also been four of downtown’s most persistent development headaches.
The Trico Products Corp. factory. The long-shuttered AM&A’s department store. The Statler Hotel. And most recently, the city’s empty skyscraper, One Seneca Tower.
Each was once a prominent part of the city’s economic vitality. And each one, after falling on hard times, stood empty for years and proved to be extremely difficult to redevelop.
Until now, that is.
Each one now has development plans in place, though some are more advanced than others. And that’s another encouraging sign in the Buffalo Niagara region’s rebound.
“There is activity now at all of these buildings that were difficult to develop,” said Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown.
The first off the block was the Statler, where developer Mark Croce bought the former flagship hotel out of bankruptcy in 2011 and converted the three lower floors into a banquet and entertainment center.
After several false starts, a Chinese investment group based in Queens is starting to move ahead with its plan to spend more than $70 million to convert the 10-story AM&A’s department store into a 340-room Wyndham hotel.
Less than two weeks ago, Washington, D.C., developer Douglas Jemal agreed to pay more than $12 million to buy One Seneca Tower, the 38-story skyscraper that went from being an anchor for the Buffalo Niagara economy – when it held the headquarters for Marine Midland Bank and then HSBC Bank USA – to a hulking symbol of our economic struggles when it emptied out three years ago.
And last week, Orchard Park developer Peter Krog said he plans to start work next month on redeveloping the hulking Trico windshield wiper plant into a complex that includes an extended-stay hotel, apartments and a culinary school.
To be sure, there’s a long way to go before all four buildings are fully redeveloped.
The upper floors of Statler City still are empty. Jemal still hasn’t come up with a firm plan to redevelop One Seneca Tower, let alone line up financing or tenants for what will be a challenging and expensive revamp. Two years after announcing its plans for the AM&A’s building, its developers only recently started work to address the site’s formidable environmental problems, including asbestos throughout, water damage and general neglect. The Trico building is the biggest – and most expensive – project that Orchard Park-based Krog has ever tackled.
So it’s far from certain that any of these projects will be fully completed anytime soon. But at least there’s activity – and that’s a big step in the right direction.
Don’t underestimate the psychological boost that the activity provides, either. Seeing the restored beauty of Statler City shows what can be done. The chain-link fence blocking off part of the Main Street sidewalk outside the AM&A’s building is a sign of what could be. If Jemal succeeds, One Seneca Tower could go from being a Beacon of Blight to a sign that our recovery really has taken hold.
The same holds true for the Trico project, visible from the Kensington Expressway and straddling the edges of both downtown and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
“It’s an important gateway,” Brown said. “It is the bridge between downtown and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, a bridge between the East Side of Buffalo and the West Side of Buffalo.”
When the Trico project is completed two years from now, it will be “a gleaming entry point for the community,” said County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.
It also shows how much things have changed in just a few years.
Croce took a chance on Statler City. Krog saw promise in the Trico building. Now the interest in the AM&A’s project and One Seneca Tower is coming from out-of-town investors.
“It would not have happened 10 years ago. It would not have happened five years ago,” Poloncarz said.
In fact, the Trico building has been largely vacant since the windshield wiper manufacturer shut down the Washington Street factory in 1998. Erie, Pa., developer Steve McGarvey wanted to turn the complex into his mixed use City Centre project, but that effort was derailed by McGarvey’s death in 2005.
The building was purchased by a local development agency in a bankruptcy auction in 2007, but five frustrating years passed without the emergence of a viable development plan. As recently as four years ago, the prospects for redevelopment were so low that the plant seemed headed for an encounter with the wrecking ball.
Then Krog stepped in, intrigued by the potential of a property nestled between the Medical Campus, with its flurry of new activity, and downtown. But projects like this take a long time to move off the drawing board, especially with a historic structure.
Krog cleared one of the final hurdles last week, when the Erie County Industrial Development Agency approved $3.6 million in tax breaks for the project.
“It’s a major milestone,” Brown said. “Seeing it there vacant was frustrating.”
The developer still has to exercise his option to purchase the Trico property before it expires next month. That’s expected to happen. Then the work can begin, focusing first on environmental remediation.
When that happens, the Trico complex will be another visible sign of Buffalo’s rebound.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Krog said.