Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown opposes demolition of the soon-to-be-empty One Seneca Tower except as a last resort, but will not necessarily agree to provide government help to save it, saying it’s up to the private sector to find a solution for the 38-story office tower at the foot of Main Street.
“The taxpayers are not on the hook in any way for this property,” he said. “It’s privately owned. The city has no ownership stake in it whatsoever. The city does not want to acquire any ownership stake in this property.”
But he wouldn’t close the door to public incentives in support of a redevelopment either. Rather, he said the city is “open to seeing what the development community might recommend,” and has met with “a few developers who have expressed interest.”
“We have had some very experienced and very well-financed developers that have looked at this building over the last few months, and hopefully one of them moves forward with a concrete proposal,” he said.
The statement by Brown represents a major push-back by the city’s top politician against those in the community – including some leading developers and downtown property owners – who say the tower is a symbol of Buffalo’s past and should be torn down.
The critics say the 44-year-old building – originally constructed from 1969-1972 as the headquarters of the former Marine Midland Bank but now 96 percent vacant – is now just a giant concrete barrier between the thriving Canalside district and downtown Buffalo. And they say it’s just too big for the city’s real estate market to absorb, even if it’s converted to a mixed-use facility with condominiums, a hotel, a restaurant and retail in addition to office space.
Instead, the demolition proponents say, a redesigned, much smaller and more open structure would be more suitable for the prominent site.
Brown acknowledged that “some people have mentioned that, people I have a great deal of respect for,” but said he “would prefer that to be a final option,” and not “the first option that we’re looking at.”
And he also questioned who would pay for it, citing the high cost of demolition, which experts have estimated could range from $30 million to $40 million. “I certainly wouldn’t want to see that fall to the taxpayers to have to foot that bill,” he said.
The tower – the largest privately owned building in upstate New York – has been mostly empty since HSBC Bank USA and law firm Phillips Lytle LLP decamped in late 2013 for renovated and new space down the street. It’s now owned by special mortgage servicer LNR Partners of Miami Beach, which foreclosed and took possession in October 2015 after the prior owners defaulted on a $91 million loan. Only a handful of small office tenants remain in the upper floors, but their leases expire within the next 60 days and LNR is not renewing them.
LNR has put the tower and an accompanying five-story parking ramp on Washington Street up for sale, but has not found a buyer. One bidder, New York City businessman Harvey Kaylie, had reached agreement on a purchase for $27 million, but backed out of the deal at the last minute when he couldn’t find investment partners to help him finance the redevelopment project. Other bidders, including New York City retail billionaire John Catsimatidis and a group of Asian investors, are also looking at it with interest, but haven’t signed a contract.
Brown noted that an Urban Land Institute study several years ago had recommended a mixed-use redevelopment, but put the onus on developers to “drive that project forward.” The report said the government should “potentially consider incentives,” Brown added, but “no one has made a concrete proposal for us to consider at this point.”
“I believe there is a redevelopment solution,” he said. “Right now, I am not contemplating providing any incentives, but we are open based on what the plan is, and based on the development group that might come forward that has the know-how, the expertise and the resources to get a redevelopment done there.”
Activity at AM&A’s
Brown also said he is “pleased to see some activity” at the former AM&A’s department store building, which is being redeveloped into a Wyndham hotel, but remains “very cautiously optimistic” given what he called “a lot of starts and stops” in the effort.
Landco H&L, a Queens-based Chinese investment group, is spending more than $70 million to convert the long-vacant 10-story structure at 377 Main St. into a 340-room Wyndham Buffalo Hotel aimed at Asian tour groups visiting Niagara Falls. The ambitious project would include two restaurants, 40,000 square feet of banquet and meeting space on the second floor, 6,000 to 8,000 square feet of retail space, a 10-story interior atrium, a large pool and spa, and six top-floor apartments for hotel management.
The highly anticipated project was first unveiled in 2014, when the group bought the 375,000-square-foot building for $2.775 million, but has been slow to start because of the significant and costly environmental cleanup that is required. The building is full of asbestos, and has also suffered from water damage and neglect. The makeup and leadership of the investment group also changed midway, as did some details of their plans.
However, the remediation is now underway and is expected to wrap up within three months, after which the interior demolition and reconstruction would begin.
“We’re working there every day,” said John Schenne, the Buffalo project engineer who is acting as spokesman for the investment group. “We’re still on schedule for completion.”
The building is expected to open by December 2017.
“Seeing some activity there is a very good thing, and we will continue to watch it very carefully on the city side on behalf of the downtown community and all the residents of the City of Buffalo,” Brown said.