Preparing for 38 floors of emptiness at One Seneca Tower - The Buffalo News

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Preparing for 38 floors of emptiness at One Seneca Tower

The Starbucks closed in September, a couple of weeks before the cafeteria shut down in One Seneca Tower.

At the Tim Hortons walk-up counter in the plaza elevator entry, only one kind of soup is offered each day now, and the gates come down at 4 p.m.

Across the way in the former bank building’s other entrance, the Subway sandwich counter also is cutting back, while in the lobby above it, newsstand owner Ahmed Alhadhari is preparing to close up shop permanently. He plans to be out by the end of the year.

“Who would imagine such a thing would happen, in this building?” said Alhadhari, with a sweeping gesture toward the soaring lobby that is the gateway to 38 floors of office space.

He has provided soft drinks, newspapers, snacks and sandwiches to the tower’s workers for nearly 15 years.

But after more than four decades, the most visible structure in Buffalo is emptying out, losing its three largest tenants in the course of a few months – the latest exodus coming this week – just as its neighboring waterfront is experiencing a rebirth.

Rather notably, two of the tower’s largest departing businesses are helping fuel that rebirth. (The other, the Canadian consulate, simply ended its presence in Buffalo.)

HSBC, the international financial company that absorbed the building’s first major tenant – Marine Midland Bank – is almost done clearing out its offices, which took up about 80 percent of the building. Some bank employees are settling into leased offices in Depew, but many are working just two blocks south in the bank-owned HSBC Atrium. Those offices, which are undergoing $35 million in renovations, can absorb the influx since HSBC downsized a couple of years ago, including selling off its local branch banking business.

The law firm Phillips Lytle LLP is basically moving across the street, although the street is the elevated Interstate 190. The gutted and rebuilt Donovan State Office Building, now known as One Canalside, is putting the law firm’s name on top.

Outside, and in

The growth along the Buffalo River was predicted for nearly 50 years, as part of a development boom that was expected to follow the construction of Marine Midland Center.

As part of the “urban renewal” that backfired in many U.S. cities in the late 1960s and 1970s, the building would take over the blocks known as Buffalo’s Skid Row and straddle the 200 block of Main Street like the Pan Am Building (now MetLife) straddles Park Avenue in New York City.

Later known as One HSBC Center and now One Seneca Tower, the sand-colored refined brutalist monolith never captured the hearts of the city. Early on, it was described as “the egg carton” or the box that nearby St. Paul’s Cathedral came in.

To anyone who boasted that the views from its 38 floors were the best around, critics would counter that it was because, from there, you cannot see the tower itself.

The interior, though, has its charms. Once safely inside and protected from the wild winds that buffet hapless pedestrians on the open plaza, workers became part of a vertical village, with small shops, a restaurant, a shoe-shine stand – and Alhadhari’s newsstand.

“You feel like you’re home here,” he said. “You get to know people. I see people outside of here, at the market or somewhere, and we are like friends.”

With the law firm expected to vacate this week, leaving five more floors empty, Alhadhari will be selling down his inventory and not making any money through the end of the year, when he packs up whatever is left.

A lonely feeling

Already, it is pretty lonely at, or near, the top of One Seneca Tower.

“When I was hired as the property manager years ago, my boss said, ‘You’re the mayor now,’ ” said Stephen P. Fitzmaurice, CEO and co-property manager for Seneca One Realty.

The 3,200 workers in the building became his community and his responsibility.

“Knowing what winters could be, we always kept three days worth of food in the cafeteria,” Fitzmaurice said, “so, if there was a storm, even if people couldn’t go home, they could eat. And keep working.”

Now, with major tenants voting with their feet, he has a different role.

From the corner office on the building’s 28th floor, he overlooks Erie Basin Marina, the outer harbor and Canalside as the old neighborhood takes on its new shape. His job now is to help find new ways for the tower to be a part of it. It will be complicated by the fact that the building, owned since 2005 by a New York City firm led by investors Mark Karasick and Victor Gerstein, faces a large debt along with its dramatic loss of rental income.

Fitzmaurice remains optimistic, or at least hopeful.

“If this was going to happen, it couldn’t have happened at a better time,” Fitzmaurice said, pointing out that the vibrant Canalside holds much more appeal than the parking areas and vacant lots it is replacing.

Before anything else can happen, though, the slate is being scrubbed pretty clean as the workers empty out.

A full floor of 18,000 square feet of open space is pretty impressive, especially when it is framed by wide windows with, critics aside, spectacular views. One vacant floor remains furnished with left-behind chairs and cubicles, like a model home decorated for prospective buyers, and in the old consulate space, a Canadian maple leaf is still part of a beautifully inlaid hardwood floor. But most areas are empty, their furnishings moved or donated.

Empty walls

And the walls, too, are empty.

Inspired by legendary local businessman Seymour Knox II, chairman of Marine Midland and namesake for half of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the outfitting of the bank’s offices included a laudable collection of art.

The items, ranging from framed posters and prints to original works by recognized modern artists, also have left the building. Some were donated to Roswell Park Cancer Institute, others to the Heart Association.

And others have been drawing buyers to Dana Tillou Fine Arts, 417 Franklin St. Tillou is assisting the bank in distributing the artworks and is selling a couple dozen of them.

“There must have been 900 or 1,000 pieces,” Tillou said. “Mostly, because of Seymour Knox, they were in the contemporary field. Early on, Mr. Knox took part in the collection; later, Doug Schultz helped after he became director of the Albright.”

The browsers and buyers at Tillou’s quickly snatched up many of the more expensive pieces by well-known artists.

Two artworks on the property aren’t going anywhere anytime soon: one a twisted knot of steel in the lobby, the other a behemoth that is among the most visible sculptures in Buffalo. Standing tall against the wicked winds that swirl around the barren landscape of the property’s raised outdoor plaza, “Vroom Sh-Sh-Sh” also is one of the largest public artworks in the country.

So spare in its black, angular design, the 60-foot-high work by minimalist sculptor Ronald Bladen was lauded by architects in a 1971 Buffalo Evening News story as “a beautiful foil for the building” that was destined to be “one of Buffalo’s most powerful landmarks.”

Instead, it has enjoyed amazing anonymity. And, according to Fitzmaurice, when the time came to say goodbye to its holdings in the building, HSBC said of the artworks, “They’re all yours.”


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