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The One Seneca Tower ghost town casts troubling shadow over city’s revival

The only thing clear today about the options for One Seneca Tower is that all of them need to be on the table, from reuse to demolition.

Buffalo’s tallest building, straddling Main Street at the gateway to Canalside, is an empty behemoth. Abandoned by HSBC and its other tenants, the structure defies the revival that is lifting the city out of decades of despair.

Reuse of the building is complicated and any developer would certainly seek a significant public subsidy. The tower’s age, construction and floor plans all bedevil the prospects of adaptive reuse. It’s not impossible, but will be enormously difficult and costly.

Not that the alternatives offer any bargains.

Some Buffalo developers, who could benefit from the removal of all that space, want the building to be demolished. The 38-story tower could cost more than $35 million to bring down – basically, piece by piece, since its location precludes simply dynamiting it. It would be a costly, labor-intensive project.

Howard Zemsky, a Buffalo developer and CEO of Empire State Development Corp., wants to see the building redeveloped, not demolished. But he says the state is not likely to spend public dollars on the tower unless jobs are being created.

Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown also opposes demolition except as a last resort. He said it’s up to the private sector to find a solution, although he wouldn’t close the door to public incentives.

In the end, this may be a challenge that requires application of some version of the Sherlock Holmes rule: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” No typical solution may be utterly impossible, but at some point, one will be seen as the most practical or, to be blunt, the best of a range of poor options.

One to eliminate right now is the status quo. Something has to happen so that a giant, vacant landmark does not stand deteriorating in the midst of a reviving city. The city needs to be protected, and that location is too valuable to surrender to inevitable decay.

Demolition would open a range of possibilities for redeveloping a prime location in an increasingly attractive city center. It could produce an opportunity to create a true and alluring entrance to the Canalside district, suddenly one of the most popular in Buffalo. It could also open up enough space to build a new convention center that would bring many more visitors to the city.

There have been ideas for reusing the tower as a multipurpose building with office, retail and residential space. Offices would likely need to fill at least one-third of the space, by some reckonings, and it could be hard to find enough tenants. Granting millions of dollars in public subsidies would destabilize the market for office space, said Paul Ciminelli, CEO of Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. He said the tower, built in 1972 as a headquarters for Marine Midland Bank, is “functionally obsolete.”

Certainly, the costs would be enormous and have to be evaluated against other options, including demolition that could clear the way for redevelopment options the existing structure does not allow.

Only two things are clear today about this conundrum: First is that the building cannot remain as it is, a useless and vacant curiosity that will eventually harm its environment. Second is that all plausible ideas need to be considered, with one of them chosen before that harm has a chance to be inflicted.

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