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Two grads receive 2017 UB Alumni Achievement Awards

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Michael Garz (BA '72) and Dean Seneca (BA '90) were honored for their achievements at the 2017 UB Distinguished Alumni Awards Ceremony on May 11, 2017.

Published May 22, 2017

One has spent the past 12 years helping to rebuild Ground Zero. The other applies the tools of urban planning to help fight epidemics from Ethiopia to Afghanistan.

These diversely accomplished individuals are graduates of the School of Architecture and Planning and among this year’s winners of the Distinguished Alumni Award from the UB Alumni Association. They are among 12 outstanding alumni and friends who were honored for their achievements and for bringing distinction to UB. The 2017 UB Distinguished Alumni Awards Ceremony was held on May 11, 2017.

Mike Garz, a member of the school’s first graduating class in 1972, is design manager of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, a $4 billion development on the site of the former Twin Towers that is both a feat of engineering and design and a moving tribute to the victims of 9/11.

Dean Seneca, a 1990 graduate of the environmental design program who went on to earn graduate degrees in public health and urban planning, is a senior health scientist for the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a role that sends him around the world to organize disease response teams, environmental controls and vaccination plans.

Both attribute their UB experience – in particular their connections to faculty and the Buffalo community – as significant influences on their intellectual and professional development.

Michael Garz (BA '72): Watch his video

Garz came to Buffalo in 1968 to study aerospace engineering but was drawn to the environmental design program by its holistic, problem-solving approach to design. “The key was learning how to think about problems and not, as my engineering background had taught me, about solutions. That became a real key to the way I approached my entire career.”

The new department had an energetic, informal spirit. Garz attended some classes in a former bar on Bailey Avenue, with students sprawled on risers. After graduating from UB, Garz went on to earn his MArch at the University of Pennsylvania and worked for a number of well-known firms in Philadelphia. He quickly found his niche was not in the design of architectural projects but in their management, particularly the negotiation of large-scale projects with multiple programs and stakeholders.

As senior vice president of STV, Garz oversees the firm’s buildings and facilities design practice in New York. Since joining the firm in 1996, he has managed the design, engineering and construction of projects across the public, commercial, educational and industrial sectors.

Such experiences were just a warm-up for the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, one of the biggest and most complex projects in the history of New York City.

Built on the site of the former Twin Towers in lower Manhattan, its program joins 11 subway lines, commuter PATH trains from New Jersey, the ferry terminal in Battery Park City, a web of pedestrian passages, a high-end shopping mall, an underground parking garage, and an expansive public plaza. Its centerpiece is a main hall designed by famed architect and structural engineer Santiago Calatrava that’s composed of curving white steel ribs nearly two hundred feet high. The Oculus’ skylight opens every September 11 for 102 minutes, the duration of the attacks.

To get the project done, Garz has had to navigate mixed public reactions to the building and, as Garz describes, “an army of organizations.” Among the project’s stakeholders were Calatrava; the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (the building’s owner); site master planner Daniel Libeskind; the contractor and construction management team; a major retail tenant; and city, state and federal authorities, from Homeland Security to the New York and City Police and Fire Departments.

The WTC Hub was completed in 2016 and has quickly become a city landmark and place of reflection where – no matter their hurry – pedestrians stop, look up and remember.

Garz returned to Buffalo in September for the Hayes Hall Grand Reopening to share his experience as the keynote speaker for a symposium to kick off the school’s 50 anniversary celebration.

Looking back on his time at UB and more than 35 years in the profession, Garz offers these words for today’s aspiring architects: “Realize that you are going to make mistakes. Trust your intuition, and always remember what your goal is. Even to this day I find myself returning to that key lesson from Buffalo, asking myself, ‘what is the problem?’”

Dean Seneca, BA '90. Watch his video.

Dean Seneca grew up in Buffalo’s Old First Ward, traditionally the Irish section of the city, amongst the shadows of grain silos, iron factories and Buffalo Creek. Although his family origins are with the Seneca Nation of Indians in WNY, Seneca says many of his family members moved to Buffalo in search of economic opportunity.  

Seneca found his opportunity at UB, thanks to a fellow Native mentor at his high school who encouraged him to enroll. A talented athlete, Seneca played basketball for UB. He explored architecture and art history before finding inspiration in the environmental design program and the teachings of Robert Shibley, Himi Jammal, Scott Danford and Al Price. He took away lifelong skills in critical thinking, strategic planning and applied research. “Being able to solve complex problems, to take a step back before confronting a situation and think strategically. Those are the skills that are the key to success.”

Always proud of his indigenous roots, Seneca admits growing up in the Old First Ward left him detached from his culture. So, when the opportunity knocked to work in the tribal planning and economic development office of the Seneca Nation after he graduated from UB, the young planner jumped at the chance to make a difference. He says the impoverished environment and disenfranchisement he witnessed – and the positive experience of helping the community overcome obstacles and develop its first health center – made a lifelong lasting impression on him. “That experience really strengthened my passion for Indian people,” he says.  

Indeed, the health challenges faced by American Indians are many – and often invisible to the greater population. “You can name any illness, chronic disease or social behavior…Native people suffer at a disproportionate higher rate of illness.”

It was also during this time that Seneca made the connection between the living environment and improving health. “If you’re addressing only health—and not education, economic development and the environment— you’re really just putting a Band-Aid on the larger problem.”

“I decided to combine my planning skills and technical training in community development with public health to create the concept of healthy places for healthy peoples,” he states. Seneca went on to earn master’s degrees in public health and urban planning from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. At the same time, he built on his experience running an entomology and epidemiology unit for the U.S. Army Reserves.

Since then, he has taken this approach to communities in need around the world, first as tribal planning director for the Seneca Nation and then as senior health scientist for the CDC’s Office for State, Tribal, Local and Territorial Support. In his current role, Seneca has served in Ethiopia on the WHO Stop Transmission of Polio assignment, helping to train close to 500 health workers in disease surveillance and vaccination planning.  During the recent Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Seneca organized teams of workers from the international government and health agencies to train hundreds of local “contact tracers” to manage the spread of the disease.  He oversaw a similar efforts in Afghanistan to combat its ongoing polio endemic.

Friend and colleague Wayne Domnitz describes Seneca as a man who “has often volunteered to journey to some of the world’s most dangerous places to save human lives regardless of their political, economic, or religious beliefs.”

Despite his international range, Seneca remains connected to UB and Buffalo. An active member of the UB Alumni Association’s Atlanta chapter, Seneca also often returns to Buffalo every year to attend a Buffalo Bills tailgate game with his UB Sigma Pi fraternity brothers.

Ever committed to serving the country’s indigenous people, Seneca is a tireless advocate for Native health, sovereignty, land and education. At the CDC he developed a conference on increasing the number of American Indian/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiians in the public health professions. In his spare time, he consults with the Seneca Nation on planning and environmental health issues and, whenever possible, visits Native communities to talk with kids about the value and importance of education.

“We have found out that money does not solve all problems,” says Seneca, referring to the growth of gaming on Native lands. “The solution for our communities is academic and cultural education, grabbing kids at early age and getting them more involved in learning and experiencing an array of new things.”