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One Seneca Tower developer can't bring himself to get rid of sculpture

When developer Douglas Jemal started considering what to do with One Seneca, he found himself pondering one element in particular: what to do with the enormous black sculpture that stands three stories tall on its plaza.

He consulted with a host of advisers and others, and every time he showed someone a photo of it, they urged him to "get rid of it," said Paul Millstein, vice president of Jemal's company, Douglas Development Corp.

That would enable Jemal to open up the concourse space to accommodate his plan for more storefronts, restaurants and pedestrians, they told him.

But something tugged at the Washington, D.C.-based developer, who researched the artist, Ronald Bladen, and then bucked the advice. "Out of respect for the past, he wouldn't take it down," Millstein told the Buffalo Place board of directors on Wednesday. "Would it have made it more open? Sure. But it's meaningful. You don't just tear it down."

In fact, Jemal said alongside Millstein, he plans to install a plaque detailing the history of both the artwork and Bladen's life.

"This guy is very famous," Jemal said. "You might not like it, but I'm telling you, it's got something going there. And back then, they knew what they were doing, so I'm not challenging it."

The minimalist work of art, dubbed "Vroomb-Shh," was created by Bladen in 1974, shortly after the 38-story tower was erected. The geometric design sits on the corner of the plaza, one of many examples of large-scale public art for which Bladen is known.

"I love the fact that you saved the sculpture. It's a focus point," said Steven Carmina, a Buffalo Place board member and a downtown architect. "It becomes such a wonderful place to be and for people to gather. I think that was a very smart idea to save that piece."

Jemal described his thinking around the sculpture as he laid out his overall plans for the 1.2-million-square-foot complex at the foot of Main Street, which he acquired in October 2016 out of foreclosure. The complex has been vacant since the departure of its two largest tenants in late 2013 eventually led to a loan default by the prior owners and a complete exodus from the building.

The developer plans to spend more than $120 million to bring One Seneca back to life, starting with the ground level. That's where he intends to bring 104 new market-rate apartments and a host of storefronts and restaurants to the two four-story annex buildings, lobby level and two new facilities now under construction.

"I feel an obligation to the community here in Buffalo, because I really got to love this community," Jemal said. "I'm 75 years old. I'm not doing this for myself. I have 10 million square feet of space. I could retire."

But, he added, "I feel I could leave something great in this community, so I want to be part of it. I'm here as a businessman and developer, but most importantly as a civic servant to help this city."

Douglas Jemal stands outside One Seneca Tower in August 2016. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)

The apartments — mostly one-bedroom units — will be concentrated on three floors of the West Annex and one floor of the South Annex, with the retail taking up much of the rest.

"What I'm trying to do is reactivate the street and work off what's going on at Canalside and give people a sense of place," Jemal said. "It's a big building, but not a friendly building. What it needed was a front door, a face that says we're open and inviting."

He acknowledged that "a lot of people" called it "crazy" and "mind-boggling" for him to buy so much empty space and then propose to add more space on top of it. "But in order to make it look like it has street appeal, it's very necessary to take that outside courtyard and make it friendly," he said.

He also decided to leave street trees and a garden in place, even though the garden forced changes in his design for a new driveway to the tower. "These are specimen trees that have lasted for so long. We wouldn't touch it," Jemal said. "Originally, we were going to put more retail on the plaza, but I couldn't tear it apart. When you really give it the attention it deserves, you see a whole new perspective."

Douglas Development is also working on plans to counter the wind-tunnel effect that routinely hammers pedestrians along Main Street, especially in the winter. Officials have already worked with the Western Ontario Wind Lab on a study of conditions on the plaza, and Jemal and Millstein were set to meet Wednesday with a company that makes canopies designed to break up the wind.

"We all know the wind conditions we have on Main Street. All you have to do is go out there and you're going to fly," Jemal said. "We're trying to do something to fight the wind problem."

He also urged the Buffalo Place directors to look at solutions more broadly for the rest of downtown. "We really should look at what we can do to stop the wind shooting down Main Street," Jemal said. "I'm going to do something at Seneca One, but collectively we should look at what we can do that's economically feasible to help this wind situation, because you're rendering all that retail on Main Street uninhabitable."

Jemal said he hopes the residential space will be done within six months, but the retail may take a year to fill.

"We're excited about it. But the first, most important thing, is that I really just want to make sure we get it right, rather than rush to get it wrong," he said. "It's very easy to make a mistake there. It's a big building."

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