Savarino shows off revamped 500 Seneca warehouse

Mixed-use building was a derelict warehouse

The Buffalo News
February 18, 2016
By Jonathan D. Epstein | News Business Reporter

From her sixth-floor corner office over a century ago, new CEO Mary Cass oversaw the rapid growth of the F.N. Burt Co. and its Seneca Street warehouse headquarters. She was one of the few women to head a large company in 1909 – 11 years before she even gained the right to vote.

Today, the onetime manufacturing floor worker might not even recognize the sprawling building, after a $44 million makeover that transformed the once derelict structure into a vibrant new office and apartment complex that is now largely occupied once again.

On Thursday, a host of state and local politicians gathered with the building’s developers and new owners to celebrate the grand opening of 500 Seneca, a 325,000-square-foot mixed-use project that just over a year ago had pigeons and bats flying through parts of the building, puddles of water, and deteriorating floors that had to be stabilized.

“This building was sitting vacant for many years in all its decrepitude at the corner of Hamburg and Seneca streets, underutilized for many years and abandoned for many years. Probably many of you were thinking, ‘When are they going to tear that building down?’ and you were thinking that the building was not worth much and was standing in the way of some other types of development locally,” said Samuel Savarino, whose Savarino Companies teamed up with the Frontier Group’s Dennis and David Franjoine and Rob Zuchlewski to redevelop the vast facility.

“But that wasn’t the case,” Savarino said. “This building had a story.”

Built in 1901 as the headquarters for the Burt company, the six-story building was expanded six times over nearly 30 years, and at its height housed about 1,500 employees for what became the largest paper box manufacturer in the world. But the company eventually moved out and the building declined, along with the city around it, before Savarino and Frontier teamed up to buy and redevelop it.

Now, it’s about equally divided between residential units, commercial space for about 16 tenants – including a distillery and a cafeteria – with more still to come. About 70 of the 98 apartments are already leased and occupied, representing about 75 percent of the residential space, while 80 percent of the commercial space is filled, except for the sixth floor and parts of the first and third.

There are 32 apartment layouts, ranging in size from 600-square-foot studios to a pair of 1,900-square-foot three-bedroom units. Apartments include exposed brick walls and wood plank floors, with monthly rents ranging from $850 to $2,000.

“The reception has been great,” Savarino said. “There’s been a lot of enthusiasm from residents of the building, and the success has surprised even us.”

The building also includes the Hydraulics full-service bi-level fitness center, Animal Outfitters pet day care center, a bike repair and storage facility, a cafe, an outdoor enclosed courtyard for tenant use, an art exhibition and gallery area operated by CEPA Gallery, a tenant activity room and outdoor deck, and a first-floor therapy and wellness center called Phoenix Rising Spa. A curated wine cellar run by W&S Wine Purveyors is coming soon, while the full-service Casa Soldano Italian restaurant with a pizza oven will open at the corner of Hamburg and Seneca.

“There’s an awful lot to see and do in this building, and the mix of tenants is far and wide,” Savarino said.

Commercial tenants include KPMG, Oracle, Liberty Mutual, ABC Amega, Nervve Technologies, BeneCare, Elderwood Affiliates, Provident Funding, Hoffman-Hanafin, Bradford Energy Capital, Tommyrotters Distillery, Impulse Guide, Leadership Buffalo, OCG Interiors and BCOME Buffalo, as well as developers Savarino and Frontier. When fully completed, the building is expected to house about 600 workers – including about 200 jobs that Savarino said are new to Buffalo.

“What was Buffalo’s past is now becoming its future,” said State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo. “This is what it’s all about: collaboration, in giving the private sector the tools they need to create opportunity, to build on that incredible vision.”

Besides the partners’ own equity, the project was funded using a combination of $12 million in state and federal historic tax credits, which were purchased by U.S. Bancorp, as well as state brownfield tax credits to cover remediation costs. The developers also received a $24 million construction loan from the New York City-based Community Preservation Corp. and Citigroup, and a permanent $18.68 million loan through CPC and the New York State Common Retirement Fund, backed by a loan guarantee from the State of New York Mortgage Agency. Bank of Akron provided initial bridge financing to get the project started.

“People have talked about the vision and what this building looked like,” said Rafael E. Cestero, a Rochester native who became CPC’s president in 2012. “It’s not just remarkable that we’re here today celebrating the revitalization of this building, but it’s remarkable that we’re here a year later and so much is done and completed.”

Savarino and Frontier are also teaming up on the Buffalo River Landing project at 441 Ohio St., where they demolished the former Erie Freight House building.