Ben Obletz says there's a demand for high-end luxury living in Buffalo, and he's aiming to prove it with his newest apartments.
But first he has to finish renting them.
His company, First Amherst Development, opened its new Nineteen North apartment building in downtown Buffalo a few months ago, with 39 one- and two-bedroom apartments located a block from the northwest corner of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
But they don't come cheap. Prices range from $1,495 per month to as high as $2,900 per month for a large two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit, making it among the most expensive buildings in Buffalo.
Nineteen North represents the latest in the escalating battle for high-end tenants, and the ongoing quest to see how high rents can be pushed. More than 2,000 new units have or will come online in Buffalo in recent years, with more to come, and most are being snapped up quickly, even with monthly rents of $1,200, $1,500, $1,800 or even $2,000. But only a handful exceed $2,500 per month.
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Many of the newer renters are doctors, lawyers and other professionals who moved here from larger and more expensive cities, where they're accustomed to paying such rates but for far less space. Others are local business owners or successful local residents with high-paying jobs.
And they're eager for luxury living with designer touches, historic features or loft elements, not to mention a host of amenities like indoor covered parking, rooftop patios and balconies, fitness facilities and shops.
The apartments range from 880 square feet to 1,700 square feet in size – essentially a small house – and include features such as marble, ceramic tile, recycled pressed-wood floors, rain-head showers and LED mirrors. The building, which is elevated one floor up on piers, also offers covered parking for residents, and includes closed-circuit TV for security.
"We hope that the result that we've delivered here is a new standard for luxury apartment dwelling in this city," Obletz said. "Everybody has lots of great projects out there that offer all different kinds of advantages. This project, a lot of people have been very positive about."
Despite some of the highest rents in the region, all but three of the apartments are now rented – including a few of the biggest and most expensive. Obletz said that indicates the strength of the market and the success of his new four-story project, which opened last spring. Those remaining – also with two bedrooms and two bathrooms – rent for $2,495 to $2,795.
"These have been very popular, just a handful of units that are left," Obletz said. "We've been very happy with the way that the project has leased up so quickly for us."
Very few apartments in Buffalo rent for such a high price, and some developers have questioned whether those rents are sustainable in Buffalo. Most are priced well under $2,000 per month, and the median rent remains below $1,000, at just $886 per month, according to ApartmentList.com.
Yet Obletz says the rates at Nineteen North are justified by the quality and luxury. And he said he's not worried that they might be overpriced, arguing that the difficulty in renting them is simply a reflection of the smaller number of people that can afford that level when compared with other newly built units priced around $2,000 per month or less.
"We think they're very fairly priced," he said. "We think that they're a good value for what they are, given all the amenities in the building and everything that we have to offer here, including location and proximity to the Medical Campus. We really think the units have leased faster than we ever anticipated."
Obletz said more than 60% of his renters are tied to the Medical Campus, while the rest either want to live downtown or near historic Allentown, in a walkable community.
"We try to take it to the next level here, as far as the fit and finish of the building," Obletz said. "And we think it's a combination of that, the parking, the location, is kind of the magical equation of what we're selling down here."
The $12 million project is the culmination of a yearslong redevelopment effort, which initially was designed as an adaptive reuse of a previous building – an 11,000-square foot mansion that previously housed radio stations WNED-AM and WEBR-AM – along with an addition, using historic tax credits and brownfield tax credits. Obletz owned the site for several years and was fine-tuning its plans when lightning struck the building.
Damage was so severe that the structure had to be taken down in an emergency demolition, leaving First Amherst with a cleared and vacant site, and no plan.
"We had so much invested in that historic project that we had to start back at the drawing board," Obletz said. "And so it took us a few years to get back on what we were doing."
The developer worked with the neighborhood and Preservation Board to design a new structure that would fit in the area. "We were very cognizant of the fact that we were building a new building in the middle of a historic district," Obletz said. "We spent a lot of time with the Preservation Board, getting them satisfied that what we built here today was going to not be competing architecture but would be a good addition to the neighborhood."
It was particularly challenging as an infill project because the site was surrounded by existing buildings, with limited space for getting equipment and materials in during construction.
"This was challenging, because we maximized the site that we had here," Obletz said. "We think this is one of the first podium buildings where the apartments are built over the parking garage. We hope we can take this plan and this concept and move it to other opportunities as we see it in the city."
The building is named for its address, but it's located in a preservation area, and its theme is "modern living in historic downtown," Obletz said. So the developer sought to blend old and new throughout the four-story complex, whose front facade features a white stone base, light-colored brick and beige metal panels.
The ground floor features a central lobby in the middle, with a 41-space parking lot surrounding it, below the enclosed building. Each tenant gets one parking space per unit. Electronic key fobs are required to get into the lot and the building.
The first-floor lobby features wood paneling and a Carrera marble floor, which Obletz said was "popular at the turn of the century," for older buildings and fireplaces.
The apartments – located on the upper three floors – feature recycled solid-wood floors, modular carpeting, 9-foot doors, granite countertops that extend over the sides of the kitchen island in a waterfall style, brown wood and white laminate cabinets with lighting underneath.
"Everything’s built with quality," Obletz said. "We kind of took everything that we’ve learned over the last four or five projects that we've done downtown and I think this is really the first new project we've done."