Mark Croce sees limitless potential in the 19-story historic Statler building. Once Buffalo's most elegant hotel, the building is a shell of its former self surrounded by chain link fencing and its ground floor windows boarded up. Despite being empty for nearly a year, and having undergone several unkind "renovations" by previous owners, the building is in relatively good shape. But with winter approaching and bankruptcy court deadlines looming, the future of the building remains very much in doubt.
Croce and James Eagan's Statler City, LLC have a phased reuse plan for the property if the public sector invests $5.3 million in emergency repairs to the lower roofs, shoring up the decorative terra cotta, repairing leaning parapet walls, and improvements to the building's HVAC system. They argue the $5.3 million is significantly cheaper than demolishing the building which has suffered from years of deferred maintenance. Governor Paterson is on board, during a visit to Buffalo yesterday he pledged State support for the rehabilitation plan if local officials "do their part."
"The roof problems need to be dealt with immediately, particularly between the wings of the tower and the low-rise section of the building along Franklin Street," says Croce. Water damage is visible in several areas of the building's lower levels, most notably in the 28' ceiling of the main lobby.
Another impediment to reuse is antiquated heated and cooling equipment. Croce says the building's HVAC system must be modernized. Prior owners were spending approximately $1 million per year to heat and cool the building. The boilers were installed in 1983. One possibility being discussed is connecting the building to the district heating system that services several of the buildings surrounding, and including, City Hall.
"We need to get heat on right away," says Croce.
Statler City, LLC is prepared to spend millions to renovate the interior of the first three levels to "relight the bottom" of the building. Croce envisions retail space along Delaware Avenue and Genesee Street fronting the Convention Center. Potential tenants have already expressed significant interest in some of the lower level retail space.
Croce says reopening the basement, first floor and mezzanine areas for retail, office and banquet uses would allow for a revolving infusion of cash to pay for recurring building expenses.
With years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality field, Croce will operate the building's banquet and restaurant facilities. He currently employs an army of 200 food service and entertainment workers in downtown Buffalo.
Croce says reopening the banquet facilities in the building will be a "multi-million dollar, privately-financed" endeavor. Some of the improvements are cosmetic in nature. Planned upgrades include restoration of the lobby and corridor floors, new exterior marquis, repairs to damaged ceiling plaster, and new painting and carpeting.
A new central kitchen would be built in the basement. It will allow simultaneous events in the building's signature banquet rooms. New bathrooms will be constructed on the main level to serve the main meeting rooms.
The Golden Ballroom can seat 600 people for a sit-down dinner. It is approximately 8,000 sq.ft. in size and is ringed by a second story balcony. The room requires new carpeting, paint, hardwood floor and ceiling repairs.
A gutted lounge area off the Terrace Room, previously named The Downtowner and before that the Beef Barron, will be reopened. Last used twenty-five years ago, Croce envisions a lounge and jazz club that will be open daily and accessible from the main lobby as well as Genesee Street. It will draw people into the building on a consistent basis.
Elsewhere on the mezzanine level, the building's meeting rooms will be renovated including the mahogany-paneled Georgian Room. Mezzanine space fronting Delaware Avenue is ideally suited for a day spa and salon says Croce.
"We're looking for the right mix of uses and tenants on the lower levels to become a real draw," says Croce. "This property is located at the epicenter of the city."
If financial assistance is secured in coming weeks from the state and city to stabilize the building, Croce envisions starting repairs and renovations in January or February. His goal is to have the building's lower floors open and the building's exterior cleaned up in time for the National Preservation Conference next October.
Reuse of the building's upper floors will happen incrementally. Croce envisions a mix of uses. He says that with nearly 600,000 sq.ft. of space, redeveloping the tower's floors in one phase would flood the downtown market with office, residential units or hotel rooms.
"The Avant shows the wisdom of creating a mixed-use vertical community, hence the name Statler City" says Croce. "While Uniland has gone after the high-end market with a contemporary product, this building has the ability to come in behind it. I envision the Statler retaining its historical feel and geared towards the middle of the market. It will be the city's second true mixed-use building."
Croce is encouraged that the Embassy Suites in the Avant, downtown's newest hotel, is expanding after just one year in business.
"It shows what I've believed for a long time and market studies have shown- there is a strong market for first class hotel rooms downtown," says Croce.
Three of the building's floors were never converted to office space. They were last used as hotel rooms in 1983. Bashar Issa gutted the space and was in the process of creating larger rooms to meet the standards of the hotel chain he was in talks with, Wyndham Historic. Croce says the work that Issa did complete, such as elevator upgrades and cleaning out the building, fits in with his long-term plans for the property.
Parking has been an issue for other developers that have looked at the Statler. Croce has a jump start on the others.
"I have the parking available to support the redevelopment plan," notes Croce. He has purchased several large surface parking lots north of the Statler and also the site of Issa's proposed City Tower at S. Elmwood and W. Mohawk Street. In all, Croce owns and operates approximately 500 parking spots within one block of the Statler. This already represents close to a $6 million dollar private investment made to help secure the future of downtown's grandest property.
Croce and Eagan have come under fire for seeking state and city assistance to stabilize the building. Former gubernatorial candidate and developer Carl Paladino has threatened to sue if the state and city help stabilize the building. Croce is unfazed. "Bring it on," he says. Twisting Paladino's campaign slogan he adds, "I'm happy as hell."