Can a new skyscraper deliver redemption to the city of Buffalo, New York?

by Jake Halpern

I grew up in Buffalo, New York, which may best be known as a place that people like to leave. Indeed, since 1970, the city has lost almost forty percent of its population. In some parts of Buffalo, this never-ending exodus has created a landscape worthy of the great post-apocalyptic thrillers of our times – films like Escape from New York or 28 Days Later. As kids, my brother and I would explore these modern-day ruins, venturing into crumbling train terminals and abandoned factories where moss carpeted floors, rainwater gushed down empty hallways, and peeling wallpaper rustled in the wind like the frayed bark of birch trees. Of course, Buffalo has plenty of inhabited and very well-maintained neighborhoods. I have lived in a number of cities around the world and I’ve never seen a street more lovely than Delaware Avenue, in Buffalo, with its grand old mansions, stately carriage houses, and immaculate gardens.

No matter how one spins it, however, the fact remains that Buffalo is in trouble. Abandoned houses are such a problem that the city’s mayor, Byron Brown, recently unveiled a $100 million plan to rip down 5,000 of these boarded-up eyesores. In fact, after St. Louis, Buffalo tops the list of U.S. cities with the highest percentage of vacant properties. And the problems don’t stop here. Buffalo is the second-poorest major urban area in the nation, just behind Detroit, and nearly half of the city’s children live in poverty. In many regards, the outlook is bleak. And so, as you can imagine, I was quite surprised to hear the latest news from my beloved hometown – namely that the city’s salvation was at hand and that its savior was a 29-year-old developer of Iraqi descent named Bashar Issa. Mr. Issa, it was said, had chosen Buffalo as the site for a gleaming, new skyscraper that would be one of the tallest structures in-between New York and Chicago.

Oddly enough, the rumor is true.

Mr. Issa, who was born in Kuwait, is the son of an Iraqi father and a Kuwaiti mother. His parents sent him to England during the turmoil of the First Gulf War and he lived there, under the watchful eye of a guardian, throughout his high school years. He went on to the University of London and, in his spare time, he began fixing up homes and reselling them for a profit. He proved quite adept at this and, within a short while, he was buying old banks and warehouses and converting them into high-end hotels and condominiums. His parents provided him with some start up money, but he has expanded his capital exponentially since then, thus earning the right to be described as a largely self-made man.

How is it that Buffalo caught Mr. Issa’s eye? Well, late one winter evening, around two in the morning, Mr. Issa was at home – in Manchester, England – surfing the web, when he stumbled upon some real estate possibilities that interested him. The buildings were grand, beautiful, unthinkably cheap, and located in a curious city in the western most corner of New York State. So he did what any brash, impulsive, twenty-something financer with money to burn does. He hopped on a plane, found a local realtor, walked into the dilapidated remains of the city’s grandest old hotel – a place called The Statler – and within thirty seconds of looking around announced that he would take it. Mr. Issa is currently in the midst of refurbishing this massive edifice. In the meantime, he has announced plans to construct a brand new skyscraper, the Buffalo City Tower, which will stand 40-stories tall, offer 1.5 million square feet of floor space, and cost a cool $360 million. Mr. Issa says that he is looking for an anchor tenant before he will break ground.

The responses to Mr. Issa’s initiatives have been nothing short of jubilant. “He is treated like the messiah here,” explains Mark Goldman, a local historian, who has written two well-respected books on Buffalo. “He gives a little talk and five hundred people show up.” Newell Nussbaumer, editor of the alternative monthly, Buffalo Rising, describes Mr. Issa glowingly as the city’s new “superhero.” Even the mayor, Byron Brown, gets a bit carried away. “Here you have a well financed business person from Manchester, England, who is saying – in major way – that Buffalo is worth investing in,” the mayor told me. “And when someone like that makes those kinds of investments people all over the world sit up and take notice.”

The critical question is this: How exactly does Mr. Issa plan to fill these buildings with tenants? His business strategy, which everyone in the city seems to be discussing, is to convince major companies from New York and Toronto to set up their back offices and call centers in Buffalo where salaries, office space, and just about everything else is dirt cheap by comparison. In many ways, this is a very compelling plan. Why should a business subcontract labor out to India when Buffalo is much closer, English-speaking, and almost as inexpensive? Mr. Issa claims that he is just the man to execute this plan and a great many Buffalonians, including Mayor Brown, believe in him. The mayor informed me, for example, that Mr. Issa has been “extremely successful in attracting business from London to put their back offices in Manchester” and that he even convinced a division of the BBC to pick up and move shop.

Unfortunately, this isn’t exactly true. None of high-rises that Mr. Issa owns in Manchester are office buildings – his are all residential facilities – and therefore he has far less experience with “back office” dealings than it would seem. It is true that Mr. Issa belongs to a group of twenty developers, known as Piccadilly Partnership, and some of these developers have lured business like the BBC out of London; yet billing Mr. Issa as an expert in this realm is simply not accurate. The mayor seems to be hoping that Mr. Issa is the right man, in the right place, at the right time; but this hope, in certain regards, is eclipsing reality.

In the end, Mr. Issa may pull off his bold plan. He is smart, articulate, and well funded. More importantly, Buffalo remains a city with a great deal to offer including a well educated workforce, a world-class university, an exquisite housing stock, and a very affordable cost of living. The city also has a number of grass-roots activists, like Aaron Bartley, a young Harvard Law School graduate who has launched a successful city-wide effort to salvage abandoned houses and fill them with recent immigrants and other aspiring home owners.

The real danger is that the city’s need for optimism will morph into something less grounded and circumspect – a kind of clinging, desperate hope. It’s impossible to underestimate the extent to which this hard luck city is always looking for redemption: redemption from poverty, redemption from four straight Super Bowl losses, redemption from the loss of the steel mills, redemption from the bad stereotypes about the weather, and redemption from all the opportunists like myself who have moved away and abandoned the city in its hour of need. This need, which at times seems to border on despair, makes a figure like Mr. Issa all the more appealing because it casts him as a hero in the classic American storyline in which the sheriff saunters into town by himself, in John Wayne fashion, just in time to restore justice, dignity, and prosperity. The problem with waiting around for a John Wayne figure to emerge is that it can create a dangerous sense of complacency and it obscures the reality that redemption will not come so easily or at once in the form of deus ex machina. In fact, the best thing that the mayor could do right now is forget about Mr. Issa altogether and get back to daily grind of improving schools, creating tax incentives for businesses, and yes even filling potholes – the unglamorous minutia of city life that will truly pave the road to redemption.