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Ambitious – and challenging – proposals would breathe life into 2 iconic buildings

It’s hard to know if the plan by a downstate businessman to buy and redevelop One Seneca Tower offers a realistic opportunity to put the nearly vacant behemoth back into productive use, but like another plan – this one for Buffalo’s Central Terminal – it’s encouraging that developers have drawn up creative ideas for these challenging properties.

Although the Central Terminal is the more historic and beautiful property – and the harder one to repurpose – finding a productive reuse for One Seneca Tower is the more urgent problem. Situated in the heart of downtown, it has the potential to secure the city’s revival or to hold it back. All the city’s neighborhoods need to share in Buffalo’s comeback, but for the moment, at least, downtown and this ghost tower, in particular, must be the first among equals.

So it’s good news that a wealthy downstate businessman with a history of interest in the building has agreed to buy the tower, the tallest private building in upstate New York. The price tag is believed to be about $27 million, and the businessman, Harvey Kaylie, and his confidant David Nalbandyan plan to redevelop it at a cost of $100 million.

Kaylie lost out in the foreclosure auction for the building last fall, but plainly remained intrigued by its potential. His plans for the 38-story building are still taking shape, but they tentatively include office, retail and residential space. Nalbandyan said the first floor could feature a shopping mall, at least 15 floors of office space and at least 100 apartments or condo units. A boutique hotel could also factor into the mix, he said. A restaurant and observation deck could be constructed at the top of the building.

Plans for the area around the building could include a plaza, a public park and colored lighting on the building.

The ideas, as far as they have been described, aren’t what anyone would call innovative, but they suit the property well and could comprise the code needed to unlock its obvious potential. In any case, no one has suggested anything better and it is heartening that Kaylie and Nalbandyan have the nerve and wherewithal to propose it.

To the east, the plan announced last week for the old Central Terminal is more daring and almost certainly more difficult to achieve. But the plain fact is that it will take a daring plan to find an appropriate and successful reuse for the empty, 87-year-old train terminal, especially given its location in a distressed neighborhood.

The creative – and expensive – idea there is to create a whole new neighborhood, one whose presence might even help to reinvigorate the streets around it. The plan is to build up to 500 townhouses in the area surrounding the shuttered terminal, attract workers from the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and reinvest sale proceeds into the art deco building, itself.

The residences would sell for $200,000 to $300,000, said Harry Stinson, the Torontonian who was named designated developer of the building last week. A shuttle would be provided for those working on the Medical Campus – thus helping to ameliorate parking issues around the health facilities.

Stinson called it a necessary “two-pronged” approach to overcome the significant issues plaguing reuse of the terminal, which would become a mixed-use building including a hotel, banquet facilities and other businesses, such as a dry cleaner to serve the residents of the new neighborhood.

It is by far the most intriguing idea floated to put the imposing building back into use. It could even wind up doing what Larkinville has done by encouraging development between it and downtown, though it would be an even bigger lift given the distances. But even without spurring spinoff development, a successful reuse would be bound to create other ancillary and radiating benefits.

Neither of these plans is a slam dunk – or even anything close to one – but the truth is that none could be. Whatever solution is found for putting these two important buildings back into service will take vision, boldness and money. Those three components are in place in the ideas proposed. That’s an important start.