This is a match made in heaven. There may be no developer better suited to tackling tough projects in gritty, authentic Buffalo than blue-jean-clad, boot-wearing, knock-down-a-cold-one Douglas Jemal. Amazingly wealthy, he may own a suit and tie but rarely deigns to don them.
Jemal instead sported an "I Love Buffalo" t-shirt and a Buffalo-themed cap for his appearance on stage at Riverworks opposite Jim Fink of Business First during the Boasting Buffalo event last night. The Q&A was punctuated by banter initiated by Jemal, who professed a true affinity for our city. The Washington, DC developer plans to live in Buffalo for "at least six or seven months" as work on the Tower ramps up.
Details on what he has planned for the tallest building in New York outside of New York City are still thin, but commercial space, residential units and a hotel all promise to be part of the office building's mixed use future.
Would you like to get in there? Yeah, me too. Both Jemal and his colleague, Paul Millstein, seem amenable to a Welcome to Buffalo Party. Imagine the Take Another Look event relocated to the top of the Tower, soon to be be vacant no longer. Stay tuned for details.
The name of the 38-story behemoth will remain One Seneca Tower. Nineteen floors are already available for lease, improvements on the exterior are underway, as is some asbestos removal. Thankfully, so are efforts to solve the wind tunnel problem.
The building was the largest development project in Buffalo’s history when it was constructed by architects Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) as Marine Midland Bank’s headquarters during the urban renewal 1960s, when "form-follows-function" reigned. Modern Brutalist is the name given to this style of architecture which makes no effort to integrate structures into the surrounding context. So Main Street runs through a barren tunnel at the base of the building and entrances are all set back from the surrounding streets, offering little protection. The plaza is barren and open to gale force winter winds which routinely blast Ronald Bladen’s 1973 monumental ‘Vroom, Shhh.” It merely needed to be the tallest building on Buffalo's skyline.
The building still defines the downtown Buffalo skyline. Its location and height allow for amazing views of Lake Erie, the Buffalo River, and the entire region. The Marine Midland Center became One HSBC Center when the bank changed its name in 1999. And then HSBC pulled out at the end of 2013. Most tenants followed, and the building became emptier by the month, ending up in receivership. Until Douglas Development spent $12.5 million to aquire the Tower and adjacent parking structure, which could play a key role in making the deal work financially. A similar SOM building, the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in Portland, Oregon, was recently renovated into an environmentally-friendly structure, so there is precedent for Douglas Jemal's massive undertaking, but he is privately financing this venture. Wow.
Although Jemal is still deciding just how to distribute commercial and residential uses throughout the massive, 1.2 million-sq ft structure, already available for lease are 342,000 square feet of office space on the 7th-25th floors. A hotel is currently part of the mixed use plan, as are residences, more office space and retail. The transformation will take at least a decade.
And that's a good thing. Flooding the market with Class A office space in downtown risks depressing the value of all commercial space. The same is true of residential. It's the law of supply and demand. But having an empty skeleton hulking over a burgeoning downtown and a flourishing waterfront is not an option. Maverick Jemal, a risk-taker, is banking on Buffalo, and seems determined to do it right.
Last week the lights were on for the first time in a long time. All 38 floors of the Tower were lit up, beaming with hope at the foot of Main Street. Welcome to Buffalo, Mr. Jemal. You're our kind of guy.