Developer plans to convert half of Buffalo Grand to apartments

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The Buffalo Grand Hotel is planning to reopen to guests on July 1, possibly sooner, but its owner is also planning to convert half of the hotel’s rooms into small studio apartments.

Canadian investor Harry Stinson has decided that it’s simply too big for the market in its current form. Having it shut down for the last two months only reinforced that idea.

With 486 rooms, 72,000 square feet of meeting space and a 600-seat restaurant, it’s significantly larger than its nearest competitor, and difficult to fill. And its location slightly off the central core and separated by Church Street and the I-190 make it less desirable for visitors or business groups that don’t need its scale and want to be closer to entertainment and restaurants.

“This place is enormous, and given what’s been going on recently, it isn’t just the virus,” Stinson said. “It’s generally learning more about the Buffalo market and its ebbs and flows.”

So he plans to turn about half of the rooms, on the upper floors, into about 200 small studio or one-bedroom residential apartments for individuals or couples, leaving the lower three levels as the hotel. That will still leave him with “more hotel rooms than most hotels in the region,” he said.

The details are still in flux, including the number, type, size and rent of the apartments. But he said he will do it without significant demolition and renovation, which means the apartments will be small efficiency-style units, using Murphy beds and fold-down tables to save room, along with small kitchenettes and laundry machines.

“We’re deliberately maintaining the structure of the building, maintaining the plumbing, maintaining the systems of the building,” he said. “There’s not going to be any sledgehammer work on this one.”

That will allow not only for easy conversion now, but also future changes. “It’s been designed so the turnover can be swift and remain flexible,” he said. “It gives us the flexibility to amend the occupancy up and down if things change again. We have the ability to switch over, because an apartment is essentially an extended-stay hotel room.”

And he plans to retain all of the meeting and banquet space, as well as the food service, parking and other amenities. He hopes to finish the conversion by the end of the year.

“It just seems a good, prudent approach to stabilize a section of the building and still have a good-sized hotel,” he said.

He said that could even give it an advantage in the new climate of social distancing, since it would have more room to handle events with the necessary spacing between tables and guests.

“I don’t know anybody who’s going to build a large event space right now from scratch, but given that it exists, there is an advantage to having a very large event space, given that the guidelines right now are more for distancing,” he said. “That’s been our liability up until this point. Now it’s an asset.”

This is the latest adjustment or change of direction at the Buffalo Grand for Stinson, who bought the 40-year-old former Adam’s Mark Hotel in the summer of 2018 with lofty hopes to revive it to its glory. He planned about $30 million in renovations to restore it, with a focus on conventions, events and hospitality, and even said he would expand the existing meeting space.

He also said he would bring a 300-seat comedy club, to be operated by Toronto-based Yuk Yuk’s International Stand Up Comedy Clubs, with three nights of comedy on the weekends and a mix of music, movie nights or other events on other days.

Those plans haven’t changed, although they also haven’t come to fruition yet. With the limited additional alterations to convert the rooms to apartments, he estimated the total cost at roughly $36 million to $40 million for all of his plans, including the building acquisition.

Meanwhile, in March, the Ontario Securities Commission found that he had been inappropriately selling securities or shares in the Buffalo Grand Hotel project – including suites or room blocks – to investors in Canada without registering the investments first, and temporarily ordered him to immediately cease. Because of the pandemic, the OSC in early April extended the order through Jan. 31, 2021.

Stinson declined to comment on the OSC action.

The reopening and transformation of the Buffalo Grand comes as the future of Buffalo’s second-largest hotel – and one of its most prominent – is in jeopardy, after Hyatt Hotels Corp. announced it was pulling out of its affiliation with the Hyatt Regency Buffalo and laying off its staff. The termination will take effect June 1 – just as the 396-room hotel was slated to reopen after its own Covid-19 suspension.

And it comes amid a host of uncertainty in general for hotels in Western New York and throughout the country that have been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic and the precipitous drop in travel and business activity that followed.

“Is there a market for events in general?” Stinson asked. “If large gatherings of people are precluded for some period of time, it undermines the market for a place with large gatherings of people.”

But he said it’s a lot easier to make these significant changes, especially on the fly, with an independent hotel that doesn’t have the strictures of a branded relationship.

“There was going to be cost in upgrading the hotel anyway, and the makeover was long overdue,” Stinson said. “We can make this change in the building, and that wouldn’t have been possible if we had a brand.”

The switch comes as Roar Logistics, a transportation and shipping subsidiary of Rich Products Corp., is preparing to move out of its temporary home inside the Buffalo Grand to a headquarters building that is under construction on Exchange Street.

That will free up additional space in a wing of the complex adjacent to the planned location of a wedding chapel, based and inspired on a 1957 design by Frank Lloyd Wright for a hotel in California. Stinson received city approval in July 2019 to add the small chapel, with its green copper skybridge and a 70-foot green copper spire reaching skyward.

That project is still the goal, but “like all event-related things, it’s up in the air,” Stinson said. He said said the former Roar space will likely be integrated into the chapel area for reception and backup space.

Posted by The Buffalo News

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