The sand-colored, midcentury modernist office tower was still functional but showing its age. Systems were working, just not as efficiently as those in buildings of the LEED Age. The building had good bones, good space and good views, and would cost hundreds of millions to replace.
It was time for it to break out of its box.
No, not the former HSBC Center in Buffalo.
This makeover candidate was the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in Portland, Ore., a “fraternal twin” of Buffalo’s One Seneca Tower.
Now, after a total top-to-bottom, inside-and-out makeover, the Portland building is virtually unrecognizable from its former self. The dated 18-story edifice has been turned into a 21st century showcase for environmentally friendly, energy efficient, sustainable architecture.
The Green-Wyatt building is just one of several siblings of One Seneca around the country, all about the same age and bearing the well-known, practical profile favored by their “parents,” the architects at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.
While most of the other siblings have undergone their own updates and reconfigurations to keep up with tenants and the times, it is in Portland where, with the help of more than $100 million in government money, the renovations went to the extreme.
“It was renovated as a model space for LEED for the federal government,” said local architect Barbara Campagna, referring to standards for environmentally friendly and energy efficient buildings.
She is familiar with the Portland project from a stint working for the government in the Northwest.
“It is just an example of what could be done,” she said.
While its size and private ownership make a complete redo of One Seneca Tower financially impractical, the building will become largely vacant soon due to the departures of three major tenants and leave room for some intriguing possibilities.
And, after the recent announcement of major “green” manufacturing coming to Buffalo, the remaking of Green-Wyatt could supply some ideas.
“Before” photos show Green-Wyatt as a smaller version of Buffalo’s landmark tower.
“After” pictures reveal a dramatic upsweep of glass and metal, capped with a jaunty rack of solar panels.
“The outside was completely removed,” Campagna said. “They have covered each exterior level with environmentally suitable materials, depending on which direction they faced.”
The renovation was years in the planning, Campagna said, and, while it could be used as inspiration, the entire project would probably be too ambitious to duplicate here.
“It takes a big effort,” she pointed out. “And it isn’t cheap.”
The price tag: $139 million, paid for with money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
To update the building, James Cutler and SERA Architects reinvented the way the interiors and exterior worked, from the heating and cooling systems to water use, turning it into one of the most energy efficient buildings in the country, according to the General Services Administration.
It lists among its technological innovations solar thermal panels to help heat its water, a solar roof to bring in 3 percent of its electricity, elevators that generate power when they descend, shades on the facades that respond to sunlight, and a 165,000-gallon cistern to collect water for toilet flushing and landscaping.
Some improvements will take years to pay for themselves, but even small savings in a building the size of One Seneca Tower can be significant.
A private property
Another near-twin of One Seneca is the Equitable Building in Atlanta.
With 35 stories, it is close in size to Buffalo’s 38-story property, and it also went through a period of vacancy in recent years.
But, with new ownership and a less-extensive renovation to modernize it, the Atlanta building, renamed 100 Peachtree, is attracting new tenants.
Other SOM buildings of the same generation as Buffalo’s, and with similar buff-colored exteriors, include the 52-floor former International Multifoods Tower in Minneapolis, now known as 33 South Sixth and home to Target Corp., and Republic Plaza in Denver, the city’s tallest building with 56 floors. Both have survived economic challenges and hold key places in their downtowns.
Without the restrictions of a major tenant that valued security over accessibility, those buildings have been open to retail, restaurants, art shows and overall greater integration into their surrounding neighborhoods.
Their success also could offer a window to the future of One Seneca Tower.
A friendlier future?
This year, a perfect storm of relocations will put One Seneca at a vacancy level of around 90 percent. With no other major tenant on the horizon, the tower offers an abundance of space in which to rethink how the 40-year-old building is used and how it fits into the fabric of the city.
Proposals are already coming from urban experts, architects and the building’s managers:
• A popular one is to convert upper floors to condos for downtown living with stellar waterfront views.
• Memories of a high-level restaurant in its early years could bring diners back for banquets at the penthouse level; a full-service, high-end restaurant on the plaza could connect the tower to the street.
• Update and keep some offices, perhaps with an exercise room for the workers and shared meeting space that also can host public events.
• Add trendy shops near the street and a high-end hotel in the lower floors, where the views are still quite nice.
• Attach all that to a new convention center on the main floors and the two “wing” buildings, delivering visitors right to the waterfront and all its new attractions.
• Then, if some space remains at plaza level, open a high-quality grocery store to meet a basic need for those living downtown.
With the right support, anything could happen.
The property’s future will be determined, or limited, by two main factors: economics and imagination.
The financial factor
Atlanta’s Equitable Building, built in 1968, has followed a path more like that facing One Seneca.
It sold for $57 million in 2007, and was foreclosed on in 2009. It came through foreclosure and sold again in 2011, for $19 million, when it was 30 percent occupied.
The new owners renamed the landmark 100 Peachtree and are investing three times their purchase price in renovation. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the tower could be 60 percent occupied soon.
That is no small feat, considering it is the same neighborhood as the Bank of America Plaza, a 55-story building that went into foreclosure in 2012 after selling for $436 million in 2006, and is also hoping to refill.
Back in Buffalo, One Seneca Tower is looking ahead.
“Once HSBC made its decision (to move), it helped clarify things,” said Steve Fitzmaurice, CEO of Seneca One Realty, which owns the building.
Since the bank occupied the lion’s share of the building’s office space, HSBC had input if any changes were made, Fitzmaurice said, and as a generally satisfied tenant, things tended to stay as they were.
“We could be a tremendous asset to this city,” said Fitzmaurice, who knows the property better than anyone. “Right now, the design is form-following-function. It was purpose-built for Marine Midland Bank. It was made for their requirements, and that meant it didn’t have to be integral to the neighborhood.”
As an international corporation, the bank had no need to interact with its neighborhood, but it did have security concerns – especially after 9/11, Fitzmaurice said. Corporate caution limited events that would attract the public to the plaza or the building’s elegant interior.
Even the branch bank that originally was on ground level was later moved to the second-floor lobby, “because they realized most of their business came from the building itself,” Fitzmaurice explained.
The building’s difficult fit into the neighborhood was mentioned in an evaluation by an Urban Land Institute panel earlier this year. The report said the design “feels fortresslike and forbidding … seemingly creating an iconic barrier around which more welcoming development patterns are growing.”
Fitzmaurice imagines One Seneca Tower as becoming part of those “more welcoming” patterns, including the nearby Canalside parks, and entertainment and recreation venues.
He even sees opportunity in the windy, barren plaza outside the front doors. An easy fix, he said, would be installing a driveway to connect the entrances directly to Seneca Street.
A more exciting one would be to build a modern one-story building, similar to the Knox addition to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, on the Washington Street side of the plaza to house a high-quality restaurant, perhaps a national chain, or a venue for Erie Community College culinary students to practice their craft.
It would provide a warm welcome along the sidewalk and get an entrance to the property right on the street.
The highs and lows
Campagna, the architect, sees those neighborhood connections as critical. And while a general outcry arose among other developers when the urban panel suggested a public-private partnership to redevelop the building, she said pure economics may require some kind of government involvement.
“If that building is going vacant, our recently re-elected mayor should be making it a priority,” Campagna said. “We’ve got to shop it outside its existing box, and the governor and the mayor and everybody need to step up. We don’t have the big corporate citizen here to take it over. We have to look elsewhere.”
She said she likes the idea of moving the city’s convention center into the skyscraper, where the views would show off the area and the location would plug them into Canalside.
And she admitted that being a preservationist influences her thinking.
“I will fight to save almost any building in this city – except our godawful convention center,” she said. “People get stuck in the idea that a convention center has to be horizontal, but that’s not the case.”
Fitzmaurice, the Seneca One CEO, also considers a convention center as a viable use.
“We have to figure out what’s going to work from a dollars-and-cents point,” he said. “There is a lot to consider. We’ve been isolated for a long time.”
Campagna and the members of the urban panel, agree.
“It needs to have an identity,” Campagna said. “It’s not easy to love like the Richardson Complex or the Central Terminal.
“It’s just a big building. And it’s important.”