By Jonathan D. Epstein, originally published in The Buffalo News on July 11, 2019, Updated July 11, 2019.

Jemal Plans Dual Clubhouses for Seneca One plaza

Douglas Jemal Mayor Brown called Seneca One tower developer Douglas Jemal “a visionary.” (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

To Seneca One tower owner Douglas Jemal, two clubhouses are better than one.

Less than three months after obtaining city approval to add a one-story bar and entertainment building to the plaza level of the Seneca One tower, the developer now wants to add a matching second one on the other side of Main Street at Seneca Street. That’s a switch from an earlier plan for a garden across from the first clubhouse.

“The concepts behind the West Clubhouse … have been so well-received that a second Clubhouse is being added to the East Plaza,” wrote Phillips Lytle attorney Adam Walters, who represents Jemal’s Douglas Development Corp. He explained that the goal is to “contribute to a new year-round plaza environment for the site, with an eye toward further activation of the plaza.”

The clubhouses are the latest in a series of four redevelopment phases that Jemal has undertaken since he purchased the empty 1.2-million-square-foot tower complex out of foreclosure and launched his $120 million project.

Jemal’s initial goal was to first revive the lower levels of the tower by bringing residents, stores, restaurants and other activity to the site and making it more pedestrian-friendly before turning his attention to the upper tower.

Last month, those plans took a huge step forward with M&T Bank Corp. announcing plans to lease 330,000 square feet of space in the tower for its technology hub, with 1,500 employees. It will occupy the two basement levels – including the one-story additions below the plaza – as well as 11 floors of the tower itself.

The ongoing work includes conversion of the two annex buildings into a mixture of 115 apartments and retail space, the addition of two retail buildings to the exterior plaza level, and construction of one-story additions to the western half and southeastern corners below the plaza. The apartments and retail space will be ready for leasing in the fall.

He also unveiled dramatic facade renovations to transform and soften the appearance of the plaza complex along Washington and Pearl streets, while providing more pedestrian access. He’s creating new driveway entrances from Seneca Street. He also is redeveloping the first- and second-floor basement levels into new commercial office space.

The expected arrival of M&T’s workers and the apartment tenants make the clubhouses all the more important.

“The clubhouses are a small but vitally important part of the developer’s efforts to turn the tallest office building in Buffalo from a vacant complex into one of the city’s marquee mixed-use developments,” Walters wrote. They will “continue the transformation of the formerly stark, wind-swept plaza into a year-round usable, social hub.”

The two buildings are designed as “flexible-use, 12-month structures,” each with “the ability to open up its doors to the summer breeze, yet also remain a warm and welcome hub of activity during the winter months,” Walters wrote. Both buildings – each about 1,843 square feet in size – would “serve as a linchpin of many exciting events and gatherings.”

The exterior design by Antunovich Associates calls for “durable materials,” such as cast-in-place concrete, black steel-frame industrial windows, natural stone and glass garage doors, linking the clubhouses’ appearance to both the beige concrete tower and the new retail buildings nearby. The interiors will be “open and flexible, with areas for lounging, dining, gathering and enjoying all of the four seasons in Buffalo,” Walters wrote.

Both clubhouses are considered “minor” projects, so they can be approved directly by the city planning department without going to the Planning Board. The first was approved in late April, and is now under construction.

However, Jemal is also altering the design of both clubhouses, so he is now seeking four variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals for each of the two clubhouses, largely related to reduced “transparency” or the amount of glass on the facades so that the buildings can stay warmer in the winter.

“A less transparent design will provide a more intimate gathering space for many exciting events and gatherings,” Walters wrote. It will “help ensure a warm and inviting atmosphere throughout all months of the year.”

Jemal also is seeking a longer solid wall in one corner, where bathrooms and utility lines would go, and higher windowsill heights for tables and countertops to be placed against the walls.

Those changes “will significantly improve the year-round utilization of the clubhouses without substantially detracting from the aesthetics of the redevelopment effort,” Walters wrote.

“The existing plaza has always been extremely pedestrian-unfriendly. Even with landscaping, it has always been a fairly uninviting place, particularly during winter months,” he wrote. “As vibrant, active social hubs, the clubhouses will have an extremely positive benefit to the character of the neighborhood and to nearby properties.”

The ZBA will consider the requests at 2 p.m. on July 17.