Unarrested Development

How Phillips Lytle is helping revitalize Buffalo

Published in 2017 Upstate New York Super Lawyers — September 2017

The eighth-floor balcony on the west side of the Phillips Lytle building in downtown Buffalo offers a prime vantage point to survey the city’s revival. 

With Lake Erie as a backdrop, historic Canalside lies below, home to ice skating and paddleboats, depending on the season. It’s a symbol of optimism for a city that’s seen hundreds of millions in new investment in recent years. 

Part of Buffalo’s renaissance is Phillips Lytle. Founded in 1834, the firm’s headquarters have remained in the city, and today, the fingerprints of PL attorneys can be found on countless major development projects, including One Seneca Tower.  

Adam Walters, partner in the firm’s real estate and development practice team, says the commercial development wave has been a long time coming. 

“There had been a redevelopment plan for the waterfront since World War II,” Walters says. “For some reason, the plans we began to develop in the late 1990s really started to take hold.”

Walters estimates there are $8 billion to $10 billion in active commercial development projects in Western New York. “We’ve always had an incredibly strong real estate practice, representing developers and property owners on some of these big projects,” says partner Doug Dimitroff. “But we’ve seen a lot more projects come through in the last five years.” 

The Buffalo Central Terminal was a hub during the city’s heyday of rail travel. Shuttered since 1979, the half-million-square-foot building is an architectural gem—and Phillips Lytle represents the developer who plans to once again make it a destination location.  

“Nobody would have said we would be working on major development projects on the East Side of Buffalo a few years ago,” Walters says of Central Terminal, located in one of Buffalo’s most economically challenged zip codes. “This project has the potential to have a positive impact there.” 

Then there’s “spin-off development.” 

“We saw it several years ago with the downtown casino project, and all of the residual development around that property once the casino was built,” he says. “And I would expect to see plenty of that with One Seneca and Central Terminal.” 

Spin-off development means spin-off spending. The firm is instrumental in the development of a $27 million children’s museum set to open in 2018. It’s estimated that visitor spending will bring in nearly $5 million annually.

“Eight years ago, we never envisioned tour groups coming through Canalside—that was beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.But it’s happening,” Walters says. 

Aside from big-picture development, they’re in on grass-roots creation, too.

The firm has been part of a groundbreaking program called 43North, which holds an annual competition where startups square off for the chance to win cash, incubator space and tax breaks. Past winners include Asarasi, a company pioneering the recovery and bottling of water harvested from trees; and Bounce Imaging, which makes a 360-degree throwable camera for first-responders.

“We have supported 43North from the beginning in a number of ways,” Dimitroff says, “including mentoring the finalists and offering outreach.” 

The work with 43North makes sense, considering Phillips Lytle started working with startups nearly 200 years ago.

“One of our first startups was Marine Trust Company, now part of HSBC Bank,” Dimitroff says. “So when people think of startups, they never really think of them becoming these big multinational companies. But we’ve been doing this for a long time. Helping startups develop and grow is in our DNA.” 

From the firm’s perch atop Buffalo, one can look out and see the physical changes that tell success story after success story—with the potential for more to come. 

“Companies and investors can now see Buffalo-Niagara as a potential place to start a business or expand,” Dimitroff says. “Decades ago, it was hard for people to understand the value of Buffalo, and what an asset the city was. Today, that mindset has changed completely.”

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