One-HSBC-Tower-Buffalo-NY-thumb-375xauto-11021

How much are you willing to pay to turn the HSBC tower into a vital offshoot of Buffalo’s waterfront development and keep it from becoming a vacant beacon of Buffalo’s blight?

That’s the question that’s going to dominate the discussion through the end of next year as the owners of the soon-to-be-empty tower – the tallest privately owned office building in upstate New York – scramble to avoid foreclosure or bankruptcy.

To their credit, the tower’s owners, Seneca One Realty, are making a gallant effort to come up with a way to hang on to the 38-story tower and make it a vital part of downtown Buffalo and the new waterfront developments nearby.

They want to convert the tower into a mix of hotel rooms, condominiums and apartments and offices, while replacing the concrete pad surrounding the fortress-like building with green space that would turn the undeveloped portion of the property into an inviting gathering spot for the community.

There’s only one problem: None of the ideas come close to making financial sense. Not by a long shot.

To make it work, the building’s owners would need incentives that would cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars through a combination of tax credits, property tax breaks and other handouts, including possibly a slice of the Buffalo Billion in promised state aid.

That’s asking a lot. And it’s even harder to swallow for a retrofit of a 40-year-old office building that lost its second-biggest tenant, the Phillips Lytle law firm, to a new office building a block away and its biggest tenant, HSBC, to a cost-cutting move that will see it shift most of its tower workers to other local facilities.

The Urban Land Institute experts spoke of a public-private partnership that could allow taxpayers to share both the risks and potential rewards of the revitalization project, possibly including an ownership stake in the property or an arrangement that allows additional proceeds to flow to the government partners if rental income rises above a certain target.

“The public ought to own a percentage of it, or something. I don’t understand why the public has to give away our money.”