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Douglas Jemal has M&T Bank in mind for One Seneca Tower expansion plan

Douglas Jemal hasn't yet opened the new apartments and retail stores at the One Seneca Tower complex, but the developer behind the overhaul and planned revival of Buffalo's tallest building is ready to add more office space to the mix.

And he's got the ideal tenant in mind: M&T Bank Corp.

Jemal's Douglas Development Corp. is proposing to add more than 110,000 square feet of commercial space to the vacant One Seneca Tower, which already has 1.2 million square feet of empty space.

That's close to the amount of space that Buffalo-based M&T is now seeking in order to consolidate its technology and other support operations that are currently scattered in various locations. The bank, which issued a request-for-proposals this week, wants 150,000 square feet of space by June but eventually wants as much as 250,000 square feet to accommodate additional expansion as well.

And it wants 1,000 secured parking spaces either onsite or nearby, with potential for 500 more. Between One Seneca Tower's 460-space underground parking garage and the 814-space ramp across Washington Street, Jemal would have more than enough for the initial 1,000  spots.

Jemal said there's long been "scuttlebutt" about M&T's expansion plans, especially for its technology functions. And with the large floorplates of up to 45,000 square feet, Jemal said the new space would be ideal. He noted that the basement levels originally housed HSBC Bank USA's data center, so "it was really done for a specific back-data room."

"There's not a lot of buildings that have the connectivity that Seneca One has, the outdoor space that Seneca One has," he said.

Even if M&T doesn't select it, he said, adding and converting the space "really is the right thing to do for the building."

But landing M&T would give a big boost to Jemal's plan to bring new life to the tallest building in the Buffalo Niagara region.

His plans call for building two single-story additions on the western half of the tower's exterior plaza level, with 28,500 square feet of commercial space.

The additions – located on either side of the L-shaped West Annex building – would tie in with the West Annex and the tower itself, for a total of 42,475 square feet of office space, according to documents submitted to the Buffalo Planning Board for consideration of the overall project's third phase.

One of the new additions also will extend to the sidewalk on Pearl Street, where it will replace "the currently foreboding concrete slab with a stylish grey brick and glass facade," bringing new visual appeal to the site, according to a cover letter from Phillips Lytle attorney Adam S. Walters, who represents Jemal. The other also will have a pair of skylights.

At the same time, Walters wrote, Jemal also wants to demolish and reconfigure the western half of the first and second floor basement levels, integrating what is now underutilized space with the recently remodeled plaza level. That will add 69,120 square feet of new commercial space – 43,000 square feet on the first floor basement level and 26,120 on the second level. Those floors line up with the underground parking garage on the east side.

"We candidly always looked at that lower level connectivity and never knew what to do with it," he said. "It just made sense. Why not connect the whole thing?

One Seneca Tower seeking 'cool operators,' millennial tenants

He's also not worried about filling it. "Once that building shows itself, and it has the attention of everybody, that building will stand on its own merit for what it is, and it will lease," he said. "It's not going to absorb that amount of space rapidly, but I was never in it for the quick fix. I was in it for the revitalization, and revitalization takes time."

Plans also call for a new storefront and office entrance on Pearl Street to "provide daylight for the office occupants on the plaza and first floor basement level," while encouraging more pedestrian activity, Walters said.

The result will be "a significant improvement to the overall site" by reviving the "currently pedestrian unfriendly stretch of blank walls" on Pearl, Walters wrote.

The latest phase "will also promote greater overall integration of the site" by letting people get into the West Annex and tower without going outside, the letter added. And by bringing more commercial tenants, it will "serve as a catalyst in bringing life to the formerly dormant site, linking the burgeoning Canalside with the shops and businesses on Main Street," according to Walters' letter.

“This is going to add one of the best commercial spaces in the city,” said Jon Pierowicz, another attorney at Phillips Lytle LLP, who works with Walters. “It’s going to add a space that any commercial tenant would be happy to occupy.”

City Planning Board members applauded the changes. “It’s going to be great. It’s unbelievable,” said Planning Board member Horace Gioia. “Five years ago, we wouldn’t have dreamt this could happen.”

“It’s a significant improvement on Pearl Street,” Planning Board Vice Chair Cynthia Schwartz said.

A rendering of the new office addition at One Seneca Tower, from Pearl Street.

This is the latest step in Jemal's ongoing effort to redevelop the vacant 38-story tower complex that dominates Buffalo's skyline but has been completely dark since its largest tenants vacated the building three years ago. That loss of tenants pushed the tower and its adjacent parking ramp on Washington Street into foreclosure. Jemal bought the complex in late September 2016 for $12.6 million, and the veteran developer from Washington, D.C., almost immediately launched an ambitious $120 million adaptive reuse.

Overall plans for the multiyear project call for a mixed-use facility, with some combination of apartments, offices, retail stores, restaurants and possibly a hotel. But Jemal has deliberately delayed any work on the tower, preferring instead to transform the plaza, annex buildings and lower floors of the tower first in order to "activate" that area and bring more people to the site.

"This project represents an additional significant investment in the developer's ongoing effort to transform the Seneca One site into one of the city's marquee mixed-use developments," Walters wrote. "This project will bring additional life to Buffalo's downtown and will prove an excellent complement to the development already occurring at the site."

In the first phase, approved by the city in February 2017 but modified twice, Jemal renovated the South and West Annex buildings into apartments, which are expected to welcome their first residents shortly. Under the second phase, approved in July 2017 and also modified since then, he built two new single-story retail buildings on the plaza level.

But those have also undergone even more changes. According to the current application to the city, the developer modified the layout of the second, third and fourth floors of the Annex buildings, taking out some storage space and increasing the number of units, while also adding two new apartments on the plaza level of the West Annex. That means there will now be 115 apartments, up from 104 in the last version.

"It kind of evolves," Jemal said. "It's big. It's cavernous. It's got a lot of moving parts, and to figure out the adaptive use of all this space, it just made sense."

Jemal also painted portions of the Annex buildings and the Tower with black accents, while adding thin brick and spandrel glass to the northern entrances of the Tower. That design scheme will extend to the new additions as well.

 

Design plans for the addition at One Seneca Tower.

Jemal's team is now working to finish that work – the retail buildings will be done by the end of the year, while the apartments will be done by Feb. 15.

The Planning Board approved the proposed changes Monday night. Abatement and demolition work on the latest expansion plan will begin immediately, with completion and occupancy by June 1, 2019 – also within M&T's stated time frame.

“2019 is going to be a very exciting year for the project,” Pierowicz said.

A peek inside One Seneca Tower as apartments start to take shape

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