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Downtown Schenectady developer hopes to build communities, not just buildings

Outlook

Downtown Schenectady developer hopes to build communities, not just buildings

Jeff Buell says connection of experience and environment critical to urban life
Downtown Schenectady developer hopes to build communities, not just buildings
Redburn Development Partners CEO Jeff Buell.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

SCHENECTADY — Jeff Buell seldom saw downtown in his youth but has spent much of his adulthood trying to bring new life into the neglected heart of cities.

Through his development companies, he has improved the business and residential landscape in the second- and third-largest downtowns in the Capital Region and he’s now turning his attention to the biggest: Albany.

Life shared with neighbors in a community is the cornerstone of society, he believes, and it is more easily accomplished in a city than a suburb.

Buell, 39, grew up in Troy, the son of self-employed carpet installer and the operations manager at Primaloft. He attended Catholic Central High School and then earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from The College of Saint Rose.

An internship turned into a reporting job at the Troy Record, but after three years he saw no financial future in journalism, so in 2004 left to become a spokesman for newly elected Troy Mayor Harry Tutunjian, a role that provided his education on the struggles aging cities face.

OUTLOOK 2019
MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Redburn Development Partners upper floor illustration before and after.

In 2010, Buell went to work for real estate developer United Group of Companies, which provided his education about real estate. His involvement in Schenectady began with United Group’s construction of the College Suites.

In 2013, he left United to start Sequence Development, which would go on to redevelop properties in Troy, Hoosick Falls, Watervliet and Schenectady. The Schenectady projects included the Foster Building on State Street, an imposing but derelict landmark whose pigeon-fouled upper floors were turned into luxury apartments, one of which is now Buell’s home.

In 2018, Sequence merged into Redburn Development Partners, a company with like-minded leaders. 

In late 2018, Redburn announced an $80 million redevelopment of several downtown Albany buildings hailed as transformative for the neighborhood.

Buell sat down with The Daily Gazette in mid-February to discuss what has guided him on this path. Here are some key points:

EARLY IMPRESSIONS: “I grew up in Troy and never really spent any time in downtown Troy. The Troy of my youth was spent on my street running around playing hide-and-seek with my friends.

“As a family, people didn’t venture out into downtown Troy in the 1980s ... there was just nothing there.”

Working for Tutunjian, “I had started to fall in love with this downtown … A couple of things were popping that I really wanted to be involved in. Obviously, it was a decision that changed my life forever.”

FIRST STEP: The first project for Sequence to buy a First Street brownstone in Troy for $10,000 and rehabilitate it into three luxury apartments and the original storefront location of Slidin’ Dirty, the truck-borne purveyor of tiny gourmet burgers. 

The final price tag was north of $700,000, Buell said, but once completed, the project was one more piece of an ongoing downtown renaissance.

MONEY: Buell’s ventures have been built with other people’s money.

“When I started Sequence I had 7,500 bucks in my pocket,” he said.

He’s spent tens of millions of dollars since then.

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“The money comes from people who’ve taken chances on me, and we’ve made them money, which helps. The funny thing about making money for people is, once you do it, they want to keep on giving you money.”

Charisma and a good narrative are important to secure financing, Buell said, but results are more important.

“I tell a very good story, and that’s OK and good, as long as the story is true,” he said. “If you tell a good story and it falls flat on its face, no one’s ever going to invest in you again.

“So I keep saying I’ve been very lucky because I haven’t been wrong yet, and that’s not a very fair point, because I actually have been wrong. A lot. [But] I have the ability to fix it.”

That’s a key takeaway, Buell says: Everyone falls down. Success depends on how fast you get back up.

WORKING RELATIONSHIPS: A key figure in Buell’s life has been Elizabeth Young-Jojo: She was chief operating officer at Sequence and is now vice president of Redburn.

They started off as friends and remain friends today. In between, they were briefly married. They still work together closely after the divorce.

“Liz and I started the BID in downtown Troy,” Buell said. “We got to know each other through work, became really good friends, started dating and eventually got married, and it just didn’t take.”

Hers has been a critical role in the work Sequence did and Redburn does, Buell said.

“I’m a very good dreamer, I have no problem coming up with ideas of what to do on things. I’m not always the best executer. And so I realized I needed an executer fairly early on. And Liz is a fantastic executer, and also someone I can trust. In this business … when you’re spending money like it’s going out of style, you need to have people you can trust."

Redburn’s two other principals – Tom Rossi and John Blackburn – both also have complementary strengths, said Buell, who met them soon after starting Sequence. After an extended period of discussion, the three mounted a successful collaboration, then talked some more, and then merged.

“We have similar philosophies on life, I think, and what real estate can be, what it should be, and what people are doing right, what people are doing wrong,” Buell said.

MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Redburn Development Partners entrance.
MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Redburn Development Partners entrance.

WHY DOWNTOWNS? “I think for me it goes back to soul,” Buell said, explaining his interest in downtown life. 

“Just look at the way people interact with each other … I think a lot of that goes back to how people are living. You had all this flight form urban areas in the ’50s and ’60s. We removed the cultural aspect of what it means to live.”

Digital technology makes it easier than ever to communicate but easier than ever not to interact, said Buell, who is a frequent user of social media but also seeks out the day-to-day human interaction that is life.

Connecting experience to environment is a key part of what he tries to do with downtown development.

“In Schenectady in particular, people have responded really well to it,” Buell said. “They want their downtowns to be good again. They like rooting for the underdog, and cities are the underdog.”

SCHENECTADY: “I’ve lived here four years in Schenectady and I love it,” Buell said. “Everything I need is down here.”

(OK, there’s no supermarket. He drives to a Price Chopper seven minutes away.)

THE CAPITAL REGION: Buell thinks the region needs to be more positive about itself – it has problems like any region but it has a whole lot going for itself, too.

“If we have bad self-esteem and we can’t talk positively about ourselves, how are we going to promote ourselves to the outside world, saying ‘come live here?’

“That’s why I love the Mohawk Harbor project so much. It’s the gutsiest investment anybody has made here in generations. They’re competitors, and I couldn’t be more proud that we have good competition like that. We’re just a gnat flying on their radar, but I root for them. … It’s just such an incredibly amazing investment to say, ‘Here’s the Mohawk River, that’s why Schenectady was here in the first place, so let’s double down on that.’ Pun intended.”

FAITH AND BELIEF: Faith is an important part of who Buell is and how he lives. He grew up Catholic but lapsed for multiple reasons and is now a nondenominational Christian, attending Northway Church.

“You go through some ups and downs in life, like everybody does. I found my faith at a time I needed to find it and it’s definitely the foundation for everything I do,” Buell said. 

“We’re here for such a short time. The only thing that you need to do is do good and be kind to people.

“The world is a hard place and we make it harder for ourselves with this expectation that we’re supposed to be something. I like that I wake up every morning and have no idea what I might do that day. If I don’t know what I’m doing that day, my foundation has to be, do good and be kind.

“Everything in life is a self-fulfilling prophecy, good and bad.”

Buell in 2017 mounted a philanthropy campaign called Do The Next Good Thing, giving away tens of thousands of dollars a hundred at a time to strangers with one suggestion to them: practice an act of kindness. It was a reflection of Buell's philosophy and also a tribute to his recently deceased sister.

WHAT’S NEXT: Redburn’s $80 million transformation of seven buildings totaling 450,000 square feet in downtown Albany includes a significant component of workforce housing – apartments that rent for sums affordable to a worker earning the median area salary.

“We’ve shifted – I think the luxury product is probably a little overbuilt at this point,” said Buell, whose Sequence projects were all upscale.

He considers the Albany project a jumping-off point to the next phase of his career, which will be promoting greater cooperation among the region’s cities toward the common goal of urban revitalization.

“What we need to do a better job of is, rather than building housing that you would call low-income housing, is doing a better job of creating vibrant communities where more jobs are and we lift the people that have the lower incomes up,” Buell said. “There should be a higher expectation of how people’s lives can be.”

He added: “It took us 60, 70 years to destroy what we built. It’s probably going to take double that to get it back. The utopia in my head of what urban living looks like, I probably won’t live to see. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t start today.”

More from Outlook 2019

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