Just weeks after abandoning his hopes to revive the former AM&A's department store complex in downtown Buffalo, developer Rocco R. Termini now wants to dress up a North Buffalo neighborhood, for a lot less.
The force behind the successful conversion of the old Hotel Lafayette and other projects has now set his sights on the soon-to-be-vacant FWS furniture store on Elmwood Avenue, where he plans a mixed-use redevelopment into residential, commercial and retail space – and a distillery.
Termini has signed contracts to buy the store property at 1738 Elmwood from its owners, as well as a nearby industrial building at 316 Grote St. that is owned by Robert and Ursula Mangano. He would not disclose the purchase price for the three-story FWS building but said it's less than the $899,000 that the building is listed for with Gurney Becker & Bourne.
The 85,000-square-foot FWS building, on 2½ acres, will become a mixture of apartments, offices and a restaurant. The two-story, 28,160-square-foot Grote Street building, on 0.61 acres, would be apartments and some retail space.
In all, the $30 million project calls for the two buildings to have 60 apartments and 8,000 square feet of office space, plus 5,000 square feet for retail use, in addition to the restaurant and distillery. Termini said he's "talking to people right now" about the latter two businesses but does not yet have anyone lined up to fill those roles.
"FWS just closed, so we're just putting it all together," he said, adding that he has already met with the Black Rock-Riverside Good Neighbors Planning Alliance to discuss his reuse plans.
The new project is an about-face for Termini, who for the last few years has planned to redevelop the massive 350,000-square-foot main AM&A store in downtown Buffalo into a Hilton Garden Inn hotel, banquet center and meeting space, plus 28 independent senior citizens apartments, 24 market-rate apartments and office space. He already completed a transformation of the Hotel Lafayette into the Hotel @ the Lafayette, and he converted the former AM&A's warehouse complex into 15,000 square feet of office space and 48 loft apartments.
But the AM&A store project relied heavily on federal and state historic preservation tax credits, which Termini would sell to investors to raise cash for the redevelopment. The state credit was capped, however, and Termini has been pushing unsuccessfully for an increase to make the financing work on such a large project. His most recent hope died with legislation that the governor never signed, so Termini abandoned the idea and turned his attention to the north.
Known for its slogan "Dress up your home for less – FWS," the discount and closeout furniture retailer had been a popular destination for many Buffalo-area shoppers for most of its 20-year history, but foundered in the past couple of years under new owners, a change in strategy, and the lackluster economy. The owners were trying to restructure but ran out of time when their secured creditor came in and seized their inventory earlier in the fall. The business is now being liquidated.
Termini said he already had been considering the building on Grote Street, so when that became available and FWS went belly-up, he decided that "you might as well create a neighborhood." He calls it "The Distillery District."
"The good part is, it's just three blocks from [Buffalo State College] and a block from Wegmans, so it's a walkable community," said Termini, president of Signature Development Buffalo LLC. "And there's parking, and they're historic."
Both buildings date back about a century. The FWS structure used to belong to General Railway Signal Co., which used it to make railroad signals. The Grote Street building used to be Houk Wire Wheel Co., which made wire wheels for Pierce-Arrow automobiles. The smaller building has a little carpentry shop in it but is otherwise empty, Termini said.
Unlike AM&A's, however, these two buildings are smaller, and each qualifies for the state historic credit, giving Termini twice the ammunition this time.
Both are in an industrial area, however, so the buildings are subject to environmental reviews before Termini can obtain any financing or close the deals. That means he won't own them for a few more months, at least, but he's still aiming to complete construction work by the end of next year.