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Toronto developers tackling Buffalo landmark: 'You don’t get many cities like this'

Step through the doors of the Athletic Club Building in downtown Buffalo and be transported back 90 years.

A black carpet runner leads up the front steps, through gilded-and-glass front doors, to the grand lobby, with a black-and-white mosaic tile floor that was hidden until workers uncovered it.

A glass-enclosed space that used to be vacant buzzes with master barbers offering haircuts and shaves.

And then there's the basement pool of L.A. Fitness, formerly the Buffalo Athletic Club, which still looks like F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby could have jumped in from its tiled edges.

That's the look and feel that Canadian real estate investors and brothers Jeff, Leslie and Paul Wynn wanted, as they rediscovered the historic Delaware Avenue building's design and restored its Art Deco roots. The 13-story building will soon be 85 percent occupied, with about 25 law firms and more than 150 attorneys.

"I studied Buffalo for years, because I love the architecture," said Jeff Wynn, the group's leader.

The redevelopment of 69 Delaware Ave. is the latest acquisition in Buffalo by the siblings, who have amassed over 6,000 apartments in Canada, the United States and Israel, and are now trying to make a bigger mark in Western New York. The family already owns nearly 300 apartments in Buffalo, along with some retail space, and has invested more than $25 million locally – including $5.5 million in the landmark athletic building next to Niagara Square.

The Wynns are among a handful of Canadians that are increasingly looking south to Buffalo for new real estate opportunities, lured by lower property prices in Western New York and an economic upswing. Some are business owners seeking to expand, but others, like the Wynns and new Adams Mark Hotel owner Harry Stinson, are taking aim at redevelopment projects.

Jonny Palmeri cuts the hair of customer Marc Garrison at Jonny the Barber in the lobby of the Athletic Club Building. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

"Buffalo has a bad rap, with snow and everything else, but you don’t get many cities like this," Jeff Wynn said. "It’s a great city, beautiful architecture."

Wynn said their experience during the last four years has whetted their appetite for more.

"We're looking for much larger acquisitions in the city right now,” Jeff Wynn said. “The city is taking off now, but it's really going to take off in the next five to 10 years."

‘It’s not Toronto’

The Wynns started their empire with furniture and real estate investments in Toronto, eventually amassing 4,000 apartments, a solar panel manufacturing and installation business, and a network of Wynn Fitness Clubs, which will soon have six locations in Canada. The privately held family company – which they call Goldwynn Inc. – also expanded to buy residential and retail properties in Tulsa, Okla., where they now have 1,000 units, as well as in Birmingham, Ala., and Florida.

The company also built a hotel in the Dominican Republic and a condo hotel in Nassau, Bahamas, and acquired a mall in the Israeli city of Herzliyah, on the Mediterranean Sea, which the company is converting to high-tech offices. They only expanded to Buffalo four years ago, when they met local real estate broker Chris Greco through a mutual friend.

Born and raised in Toronto, but with an uncle still living in Williamsville, Wynn and his brothers are quite familiar with Buffalo's trials. Their father used to visit Buffalo in the 1950s. And they know the suburbs "as any Canadian would," Wynn said – from shopping and antiquing.

"I've been coming to Buffalo since I was a kid, so I was acquainted with the city," Wynn said. "I remember the city going back years ago, in the '70s and '80s. It left a lot to be desired. We rarely got downtown unless we got lost, and then we got back on the freeway quickly and went back to Williamsville."

But that's all changed, he noted, with gentrification and growth taking hold in parts of the city.

The best part about Buffalo for Wynn? "It's not Toronto," he said. "Toronto is congested. It's overbuilt. It's expensive and very tough to live there. It's stressful."

Chris Greco in the renovated lobby of the former Buffalo Athletic Club building on Delaware Avenue. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

By contrast, in Buffalo, "it’s easy to invest. Tenants are great. People are easygoing. The food scene is amazing, and the architecture is incredible," he said. "It’s a city that is seeing a nice renaissance."

Wynn is now eyeing other opportunities in the city on the lower West Side and the East Side. He believes Buffalo is ripe for construction of a new midrise glass condominium building with 15 to 20 stories, on a vacant lot downtown, with views of both the city and the lake.

"There are a lot of empty nesters that live in Amherst, live in Clarence, live in Williamsville, in big homes, and they do not want to maintain it,” Wynn said. “They’d like to live in a nice glass condo in the city, with all the attributes. Empty nesters want urban vibe."

Expanding to Buffalo

Chris Greco – the broker who is now also an investor in 69 Delaware Ave. along with his cousin, Dennis – began showing the Wynns multifamily investment opportunities in Buffalo, starting with 1165 Delaware Ave.

Built in 1926 and located across from Canisius High School, "the building was run down inside and very dilapidated," Wynn said. He almost didn't buy it, he said, but then made the leap and renovated it with Art Deco sculptures and carpeting.

"I like the architecture. The tenants are great. It worked out so well," he said. "So I went to another building and then another. Almost all of my buildings have architectural merit."

He soon added other properties on Amherst Street and East Morris, Manhattan and Richmond avenues, and even looked at One Seneca Tower before Washington, D.C., developer Douglas Jemal bought it. "That's a lot of building. It's huge," he said. "We just said it's too much for us."

Almost all of his units are now occupied.

But he wasn't keen on office space. So when Greco proposed 69 Delaware Ave., Wynn hesitated – until he saw it.

Hidden glamour

Designed by E.B. Green and constructed in 1922 for $2 million, the 13-story building mirrors the look of Statler City across Niagara Square and was the original home of the athletic club. It had been owned by attorney Eugene C. Tenney since 1972.

It was about 65 percent occupied with office space, plus the fitness club in one part of the building, but the rest of the space was empty. A former restaurant area off the lobby had been vacant for over a decade.

Yet Wynn saw potential, especially given the stature of the building and its prime location. So he decided to renovate the lobby and gradually convert the building to residential space.

Over the last two years, the company redid the entire lobby, tearing up the drywall and flooring to reveal the hidden tiles, staircase and other features that had been covered up. The Wynns bought Art Deco fixtures, furniture and mirrors, installed new elevators and paneling, and commissioned murals that highlight Buffalo’s economy and culture while evoking the style of the post-World War I years that highlighted Buffalo’s economy and culture.

Paintings in the archways in the lobby of the recently renovated Athletic Club Building on Delaware Avenue. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Outside, the company lit up the outside of the building, put up flags and banners, installed the letters "ACB" in period-style on the upper facade, and revamped landscaping. All told, Wynn estimated the family has spent $500,000 so far, not counting the $5 million purchase price.

Meanwhile, Jonny the Barber signed on as a tenant, followed by another location of Ashker's cafe. And another law firm will be taking up some of the vacant space on the fifth floor, bringing occupancy to more than 85 percent. So Wynn gave up his apartment conversion idea.

"We're getting such demand for office that why bother?" he said.

He also plans to convert the basement into parking for 49 cars, using a ramp that already exists, and will spend $220,000 to upgrade the boiler system. And L.A. Fitness plans to renovate their aging fitness club to appeal to more clients.

"We’re getting the word out," Greco said. "This is a great building here, in a great location. It’s hard to believe this thing was asleep for 30 years."

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