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Zemsky favors redevelopment of One Seneca Tower over demolition

New York’s top economic development official said Tuesday the state is not likely to spend public dollars redeveloping One Seneca Tower unless jobs are being created in the vacant downtown office building.

“First and foremost, we actually believe in the private markets. We believe in free markets and capitalism and all that good stuff,” said Howard Zemsky, a Buffalo developer who is CEO of Empire State Development Corp.

He said he believed the 38-story office tower would present a “good opportunity” for someone to invest in a project, citing the resurgence in Buffalo. But he said the state’s responsibility is to “induce companies to create jobs, not just fix up buildings.”

He also rejected the idea of demolishing the building, as some developers, downtown landlords, and others have suggested. “There’s been some ideas floated about taking the building down, which we don’t think is a good idea,” he said. “We think that building has an opportunity.”

The comments by Zemsky, made in front of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, came at a news conference after the state announced $4 million in job-related incentives for an expansion by GEICO Corp. They also follow similar caution expressed by Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown.

Taken together, they would appear to throw cold water on the hopes by several potential bidders for the tower that the city or state might help with a proposed conversion of the 1.2-million-square-foot building to a mixed-use facility.

Experts have agreed that such a project – which would likely include some combination of hotel, condominium, apartment, restaurant, retail and office space – could easily cost more than $100 million, not including the purchase price. And proponents including the Urban Land Institute have said public-sector incentives may be necessary to make the project work.

Zemsky said the state isn’t closed to the idea of providing money for the right project. But that depends on the nature of a proposal, how much private capital is going into it and how many jobs would be created. “That really has a lot to do with what the state’s role might be,” he said.

The building, originally built as the headquarters for Marine Midland Bank, is now almost completely empty, after its largest tenants left and the holders of a $91 million mortgage foreclosed on it. But that hasn’t been a problem for the city’s recovery, Zemsky said.

“Buffalo has done amazingly well, even while that building hasn’t done particularly well,” Zemsky said. “So it’s not standing in our way as an obstacle for continued growth in Buffalo.”

And he suggested that government involvement may not be necessary. “Truthfully, with the way Buffalo is going, you might expect that over time, people might step up and make some offers to buy the building,” he said.

“Look at all the investment going on downtown, all the rehab, all the waterfront activity. Anything within any proximity of downtown is doing well. So let’s just be a little patient, let’s not overreact, and let’s not throw government money at it until we know what the plan is.”


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