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One Seneca Tower seeking 'cool operators,' millennial tenants

One Seneca Tower is getting a new look.

A shiny new coat of black paint is covering the concrete facade's horizontal strips at the lower levels to tie in with the two new dark-colored retail buildings that are nearing completion on the plaza.

And a new gray-and-white facade has been installed around the two tower doors in an attempt to create a much friendlier entrance to the imposing complex.

Douglas Jemal couldn't be happier.

"I did the right things to the buildings," said the Washington, D.C.-based developer and owner of Buffalo's tallest building. "I put my own dollars in it, and my heart and soul in it, because I fell in love with the community."

Jemal is spending more than $120 million to bring the vacant 38-story office complex back to life as a new mixed-use community, after buying the 1.2-million-square-foot facility out of foreclosure for $12.6 million in September 2016.

His initial phase is focused on the plaza level and the lower floors of the tower and Annex buildings, which he hopes to "reactivate" and connect with both downtown Buffalo and nearby Canalside. His goal is to make the imposing tower and concourse more welcoming and inviting to people before he tackles the upper floors.

He's converting all four floors of the West Annex building and one floor of the South Annex building into 104 new apartments – primarily a mix of one-bedroom and studio units. He's also putting in space for stores and restaurants, in both the South Annex and the two new retail buildings of 4,000 and 7,000 square feet, respectively. And he's adding curved driveways, bollards, planters and other features to make the plaza more friendly to pedestrians.

He's also not afraid to make changes on the fly – which he's already done several times during the course of planning and construction, including with the new paint job. "I’ve been looking at it for two years. I’m a frustrated design guy, and how to make something cool and hip is something I do," he said.

Now he's starting to look ahead to bringing in both retail and residential tenants. New kitchens are now being installed in the apartments, which he said should be ready for occupancy in three to four months.

On the retail side, though, Jemal said he's not quite ready yet. The two new buildings constructed by RP Oak Hill Building Co. are already closed in, with a modern-looking facade of brown brick, black metal and glass designed to appeal to a younger clientele.

That's deliberate, and ties in with the new black paint that Jemal chose "to give it that warm, industrial feel that millennials want to see."

"I don’t want a building that looks cold and dated. I want something that looks hip, that attracts the millennial generation," he said.

But he hasn't found the right mix of tenants yet, and he's not in a hurry. With an average storefront size of about 2,500 square feet, Jemal believes he can fit five or six retailers in the two new buildings, plus as many as 15 more in other parts of the complex, such as where the loading docks are now located.

But he doesn't want it to be just anyone. Instead, he said he's specifically seeking local restaurants, coffee shops, bars and retailers – "young, local, smart guys that know the city well."

"I want local, cool operators," he said. "I want my building to shine like a diamond, and I’ll pick the kind of quality tenants that will generate activity down there by the canal. I’m looking for quality that will make it a sense of place... You have to make it look good to attract the right tenants."

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