"Sometimes you've just got to take a risk"

Doug Swift.

Doug Swift is a developer driven by something more than the simple “bottom line” — a desire to make the city better. Photo by Catherine Maier

By Bradshaw Hovey

It is the particular genius of the best of real estate developers to look at a property – a piece of land or a building or both – and see straight through what exists to what might become, to see a value that others cannot see and, in a sense, to see the future. It helps to be an architect, too.

Across a range of projects in Buffalo and working with a variety of partners, Doug Swift (MArch ‘93) has demonstrated exactly this kind of vision: seeing an old warehouse becoming a luxury condominium (City Centre), a 1912 industrial building becoming a successful commercial space (The Root Building), a 19th century commercial row becoming restaurants and offices (Genesee Gateway), and soon, an old industrial site and grain elevator that can become an entertainment and events center (RiverWorks).

Swift remembers the day fellow-developer Howard Zemsky walked into his office in the Root Building on Chippewa Street and asked him and his partners, “what do you guys think about the Graphic Controls building?”

“Well, it’s big,” Swift replied.

He knew what Zemsky was getting at. Could a building like the former Graphic Controls headquarters, a mile from downtown, be successfully redeveloped for another use? He knew from his work to convert the Root Building to new uses that the general answer was “yes.”

But the scale! There’s a huge difference between redeveloping a 60,000-square-foot building and doing a 600,000-square-foot building. And if Chippewa Street in the 1990s was a place to be pioneered, the Hydraulics neighborhood in the first decade of the century was totally off the beaten path.

Of course, it’s now known more commonly as Larkinville, but the success of the project was by no means foreordained. Zemsky, Swift and their partners in CityView Properties, Bill Jones and Joe Petrella, imagined “Class C” tenants but got “Class A.” They aimed initially at “back office” but hit “cutting edge” and reinvigorated a whole neighborhood in the process.

People thought they were crazy, of course. They did no market study. They just set to work. They put in a small park at the corner of van Rensselaer and Exchange streets and started installing the replacement windows. There was no master plan. Indeed, the vision for the building was developed along the way. But they moved forward and people took notice.

“Sometimes,” Swift said, “you've just got to take a risk.”

He likes to think that the Larkinville project has changed the environment for development in Buffalo. It was not so long ago, he said, that a developer wanted to have all their tenants in place and arrange for every available dollar of subsidy before investing their own money in the physical project. Everyone is a little more adventurous now.

Swift’s own fundamental interests and motivations were set in place early, around the family dinner table.

He was a fifth or sixth grader when his father, Harlan J. Swift, led the project that would transform the very core of downtown Buffalo. He was president of Erie County Savings Bank (later Empire of America Federal Savings Bank, subsequently absorbed by M&T Bank) and a founder of the Greater Buffalo Development Foundation. As such he was deeply committed to the preservation and prosperity of downtown Buffalo. But how he chose to pursue that goal makes us shudder today.

The bank’s great Richardsonian Romanesque headquarters, which had represented financial probity in Buffalo since 1893, was demolished. Shelton Square, which Buffalo Evening News writer Ellen Taussig called at the time “perhaps the primary valve in the heart of downtown Buffalo,” was sold to a private company. The connection between Niagara Street and Main Street was severed and Main Place Tower, Main Place Mall and subsequently the Rath County Office Building displaced the public street.

Doug Swift's new adaptive reuse project.

With support from Robert Kresse and the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, Swift completed the adaptive reuse of an old commercial block on Genesee Street started two decades ago by attorney Willard Genrich. Photo by Catherine Maier

Like a lot of Buffalonians, Swift looks back on those events as an urban tragedy. But he also appreciates that his father and his colleagues lived in a different world. In the 1960s, the modernization of downtown Buffalo was understood to be an urgent and inevitable necessity. The Main Place project – an office tower, enclosed retail mall and underground parking – was understood as a progressive move at the time.

As they discussed it in later years, father and son disagreed. But what they shared was a commitment to the core of the city and a determination to use their skills and their resources to make the city a better place.

His path to the development business was indirect. After school in Buffalo – Elmwood Franklin School and Nichols School – he went to San Francisco State University for a degree in theater set design. It was good skill but the wrong profession. The results were too impermanent.

In the mid-1980s, he took a turn buying and renovating townhouses on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, where he also enrolled in the architecture program at the Catholic University of America. Later, he lived in Connecticut and made architectural models. Not his mission. Around the time his father passed away in 1985, he spent time back in his home town and fell in love with Buffalo again. In 1989, he returned to work for an MArch at UB.

Swift was part of the first studio under the auspices of the Urban Design Project in 1990. He credits Robert Shibley, founding director of the Urban Design Project, with “waking me up to the path I took.”

The focus of the studio was the 500 Block of Main Street – a whack of small commercial buildings vacant or with low performing retail uses on the ground floor and usually nothing more than storage up above. One of the questions was how to make the upper stories of these buildings more usable.

The answer Swift came up with, and which he pursued in his master’s thesis, was to connect the spaces, passageways, elevators and mechanical systems across multiple buildings to make them operate as one, even as they continued to appear as separate buildings from the outside.

Swift’s first project after graduate school, along with Jones and Petrella, was the conversion of the Nemmer Furniture Building, an eight-story former furniture warehouse on Main Street near Chippewa Street, into City Centre, a 12-story residential condominium building.

“It wasn’t necessarily that successful,” Swift said of the business end of the deal, “but we got it done.”

After that was the Root Building, which Swift initially envisioned as a residential project to connect City Centre with other new downtown housing developments like the single-family homes at Georgia and Prospect streets. They struggled to get financing for the project but ultimately they were lucky they didn’t. In the interim Chippewa Street became not the spine of a new neighborhood but a full bore party zone where few would want to make a home. Instead, they attracted the culinary arts programs of Emerson Vocational High School, and today it’s a successful commercial building.

Then came the Larkin at Exchange project and after that a call from Robert Kresse, head of the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation. Kresse asked Swift to meet him at a strip of long-vacant 19th century commercial buildings on Genesee Street between Ellicott and Oak streets (once memorialized in a great Charles Burchfield painting).

“It became Bob Shibley’s mission to do something with this block,” Swift said. As a private profit-making opportunity, the numbers wouldn’t work. But if Swift would be the developer, Wendt would be the banker, and “it would be their gift to the city.”

Willard Genrich, an attorney and sometime developer, had owned most of the buildings for the better part of 20 years. He caught a lot of flak for not moving the project to completion. Swift is not so harsh in his judgment.

“He did classic preservation,” Swift said. “Without him putting on roofs and shoring up walls, this block wouldn’t be here. And he put more money into it than he probably got out of it.”

For Swift, the other irony of the Genesee Gateway is that what he prescribed in his thesis for the 500 block of Main Street came to fruition in the “Charley Baker Block,” a group of individual buildings interconnected in a way that made them function as one.

Buffalo River Works rendering.

With partners Earl Ketry of Pearl Street Grill & Brewery and Jon Williams of Ontario Specialty Contracting, Swift is leading the adaptive reuse of the GLF Elevator on the Buffalo River as an entertainment and events center complete with a brewery, beer garden, hockey rinks and concert venue. Rendering courtesy of Doug Swift

Next on Swift’s agenda is RiverWorks, which will create an events, entertainment and recreation center – complete with a brewery, beer garden, hockey rinks and concert venue – in the former GLF Elevator along the Buffalo River. Working with new partners Jon Williams, president of Ontario Specialty Contracting and original owner of the site, and Earl Ketry, founder of Pearl Street Grill & Brewery and the Pan American Grill, this project, like the others, looks far beyond what is there now to see what might be instead.

Like many “boomerangs,” Swift came back to his hometown after sampling what the wider world had to offer. “I’m addicted to Buffalo and it’s a dangerous disease,” he says. But he also wants to leave his mark. It’s not much more complicated than wanting to make things better, to improve the environment, to foster the life of the city, to build the economy “and let that be the driver rather than the bottom line.”