Douglas Jemal's plan to add nearly 200 apartments on four lower floors of the One Seneca Tower complex won't just change the look and feel of Buffalo's tallest building.
It will have a significant impact on the downtown housing market at a time when a wave of new apartments are coming online.
There are now 1,932 apartments or condos recently completed, under construction or proposed for the city's downtown core and nearby neighborhoods, according to a City Hall tally.
The surge of new urban housing is part of a broader effort to turn downtown into a live-work-play neighborhood.
Projects like Jemal's $100 million remake of the 38-story tower represent a significant element of the new Buffalo that city officials and developers are trying to create.
"It's going to add a whole different dynamic to the foot of Main Street visually, as well as the buzz that it creates," said architect and developer Steven Carmina. "I just think it's going to boost the confidence in our city even higher."
Jemal, a Washington, D.C., developer, bought the vacant building last year for $12.6 million. On Thursday, he announced a plan to turn the tower's base, consisting of two four-story annex buildings, into apartments, restaurants and retail space. He would leave the rest of the tower empty for now.
New details available Friday in Planning Board documents show Jemal's Douglas Development Corp intends to create 43,000 square feet of retail space at the plaza level, with four levels of apartments above the storefronts, including a new penthouse level with roof terraces. The 150,000 square feet of residential space will include 183 studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units, renting at market rates.
“It’s exciting to see out-of-town investors coming into the Buffalo market and spending private sector dollars here," said Robert G. McDonnell, senior vice president of Ciminelli Real Estate, which has its own plan to build a new high-rise apartment building on Ellicott Street. "No one wants a vacant tower. Creating density here is a positive, and any high-profile, well-planned project like this is a welcomed addition and a benefit to other downtown property owners.”
City nears goal for 2000 apartments
Three years ago, amid high hopes for a revival of downtown Buffalo, Mayor Byron W. Brown set a lofty target of creating 1,300 new residential units in the city's core by 2018.
That was February 2014, and Brown saw an opportunity to capitalize on the surging excitement around the city, especially from Canalside and HarborCenter. The goal was to meet the rising demand and desire for urban living among young professionals, while also benefiting from the growth of the medical campus and other businesses.
Developers jumped on the bandwagon so quickly that just a year later, Brown increased his aim by more than 50 percent, announcing a new target of 2,000 housing units in the downtown footprint.
Two years and more than three dozen projects later, Jemal's project puts the city close to the goal.
"The mayor set an aggressive goal, and the fact that we are so close to meeting this goal within the timeframe speaks well to the interest and the momentum that we have in the City of Buffalo to this day," said Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of Buffalo's Office of Strategic Planning. "It's exciting that this one in particular takes us as close to meeting this goal as it does."
City leaders say downtown Buffalo still needs more places to live. But they're also quick to cite the progress that's been achieved to date.
"As we build a critical mass, it feeds itself, and becomes a better place to live, work and play, 24 hours a day," Mehaffy said. "This not only adds to the momentum in terms of numbers but brings us closer to the objectives set some time ago to create a vibrant center for the region."
With a few exceptions, the downtown apartment projects are smaller buildings of fewer than 100 units each; many even have fewer than 50.
Two projects are comparable to what's tentatively planned for One Seneca. Those include a proposal by Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. to build a high-rise apartment and retail tower at 201 Ellicott St. and Gerald Buchheit's Queen City Landing proposal on the Outer Harbor.
Other big downtown apartment buildings are Jake Schneider's Apartments @ the Hub and Turner Brothers Lofts, Ciminelli's Sinclair and Ellicott Development Co.'s Fairmont, with 165 new units between them. All are complete. Paul Kolkmeyer is putting 86 units at The Marin and The Glenny, including 36 apartments and 50 condos.
One Seneca a central location
Jemal's single large project represents a major addition to the city's tally and is in perhaps the most prime downtown location of all: a tall building on Main Street, immediately next to Canalside and directly on the Metro Rail. That makes it highly visible, very central and likely influential.
Jemal bought the vacant office tower in September, out of foreclosure. He indicated at the time he would move quickly with a redevelopment of the 1.2-million-square-foot building into a mixed-use complex, with some combination of residential, hotel, retail and office space, but did not give any specifics or timeframe.
On Thursday, Douglas Development Corp. and attorneys at Phillips Lytle LLP filed initial plans for One Seneca with Buffalo officials, who will begin a formal review by the city Planning Board on Feb. 13. Phillips attorney Adam S. Walters said in a letter accompanying the developer's site plan application that, while the project is being submitted under the current zoning code, it "exemplifies the type of development the Green Code was designed to encourage."
"The purpose of the project is to transform a currently vacant, underutilized property into a vibrant center of activity where Buffalonians, visitors and tourists alike can eat, meet and shop," Walters wrote. "Given the site's central location and easy accessibility, this project has the potential to be yet another success story in the city's continuing resurgence and will bring yet more people downtown to live, work and visit."
Douglas Development also plans to construct a new single-story retail building next the tower, with 9,000 square feet, and will convert 6,150 square feet of the third floor of the tower into retail space. The project also includes a pedestrian bridge crossing Main Street adjacent to the north face of the tower, with three levels for passage over the street, a terrace above that, and a roof above the terrace. And the developer wants to change the tan cement facade with new materials, such as brick, and architectural accents.
On the concrete plaza, Jemal and his team "will enhance the pedestrian experience and bring new life to the site," according to Walters' letter. That will include new landscaping, benches and street lighting to encourage pedestrian traffic and create meeting areas.
"It completely changes the streetscape from the wind tunnel it is in the wintertime and the sort of tumbleweed platfrom that it is during the summertime. It's going to transform it," Carmina said. "Not to mention looking south of Main Street won't be as bad as it is now. Right now, it's like a mirage in the sky that never goes away. Now it's going to have all this dynamic architecture in front of it."
There will be a new driveway at the north end of the plaza to "break up the overwhelming expansiveness of the plaza" and provide an easy pick-up and drop-off area, the letter said. Large storefronts will replace "existing foreboding concrete walls" along Exchange Street, to "add to the pedestrian-friendly design." And Douglas Development will install modern store canopies, signs and patios for retailers "to bring much needed variety to the currently monotone facade," Walters wrote.
"The project will serve to link Buffalo's front porch with a revived Main Street corridor and the city's more established entertainment districts," the firm said in the letter.
Last year, Carmina was among the biggest skeptics that anyone would come into Buffalo to revive the tower. He even expressed support for tearing it down. "That building has been sort of our failure, collectively," he said. "It's so dug into our psyche that we don't want to see it anymore."
Now, though, he said he's "happy to stand corrected."
"I don't see any negatives with this at all. I just see all positives," Carmina said. "I really hope that he pulls it off with flying colors… The sooner he breaks bround, the better."