An Urban-Suburban Compromise to Revitalize a Buffalo Neighborhood
A century ago, Buffalo's Hydraulics District, a manufacturing and warehouse area one mile from downtown, was booming. This was thanks in a large part to the Larkin Company, one of the nation's largest mail order retailers.
But competition with the department store eventually proved too much. Larkin went bust in the 1940s, and it brought the neighborhood down with it. Even the company’s famous administration building was demolished in 1950. The building, a progressive temple for the modern workplace designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (his first ever office building) was converted into surface parking.
But in the last few years, the neighborhood known as "Larkinville" has reemerged as a hub of economic activity. The once devastated neighborhood now posesses a growing collection of public space, mixed-use initiatives and offices. It's the city’s most unexpected and perhaps most successful urban development initiative in decades.
This is thanks in a large part to Howard Zemsky. Zemsky once worked in a company based in the neighborhood, and he's played a major role in the exhaustive preservation of another local Wright building (the Darwin D. Martin Complex). He saw opportunity in the massive structure across the street from his old workplace, a building with the iconic “L Co.” logo still on its facade.
Larkin at Exchange. Courtesy of the Larkin Development Group.
That building is now known as Larkin at Exchange, converted by Zemsky and his Larkin Development Group into one of the city’s biggest office buildings. It's home to an assortment of local companies including the headquarters of First Niagara Bank.
Landing the growing bank was a critical step to achieving Zemsky’s vision of a diverse and active district. "We had initiatives but they were expensive to take on," he says. "Without First Niagara I’d still just be showing pictures of what it could look like."
Helped by over $1 million in donations from First Niagara as well as state assistance, Zemsky had the neighborhood's streetscape redesigned, then redeveloped a collection of smaller structures into offices and apartments. He turned a former gas station into a trendy lunch spot and centered everything around a new public space called Larkin Square.
Larkin Square. Courtesy of the Larkin Development Group.
The whimsically designed Larkin Square hosted events throughout last summer, which gave Buffalonians a chance to explore the now-revitalized neighborhood. John Koelmel, President and CEO of First Niagara, was struck by the amount of people coming up to him during the first outdoor concert of the summer. He was particularly touched by a young couple. "They said, 'we put our house up for sale because of the neighborhood's long decline," he says. "But we took off the sign when we discovered Larkin Square.'"
"There was a great deal of vacancy and neglect on the part of owners and the city," says Alan Dewart, a local developer who purchased one of the neighborhood’s massive structures in the 1970s. "It remained that way pretty much until Zemsky came in."
With Zemsky's properties running at nearly full occupancy, other developers are trying to build on his success, purchasing up the neighborhood’s old building stock. Dewart’s company sold their no-frills property to another developer in 2010 who has since given it a thorough makeover. Just down the street, another local developer is turning a former New Era Cap factory into office and cultural space.
But despite its success, Larkinville remains mostly quiet outside of the weekly 9-5. Only a handful of new residential units have been created so far and the abandoned gas station-turned restaurant remains closed on evenings and weekends as a result. Meanwhile, neighborhood dive bar, Swan Lounge, closed in 2011 after almost 60 years of business.
Dewart notes the basic, suburban-rooted reason why Larkinville works in car-centric Buffalo. "The availability of parking at no cost or at really competitive prices helps," he says, noting the many surface lots directly next to the neighborhood’s office space. Koelmel concurs, adding that Larkinville provides a “best of both worlds” arrangement, with historic and architecturally unique workspaces along with wide floor plates and easy highway to parking spot to office arrangements the downtown can’t give.
In fact, Koelmel notes the three main hubs of economic activity fueling rumors of Buffalo’s renaissance (Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus, Canal Side, Larkinville) form a triangle around the traditional central business district, rendered obsolete for most new projects besides conversions into residential and hotel space.
The 'U Building' fully occupied by First Niagara Bank, Larkin at Exchange in the background. Courtesy of the Larkin Development Group.
As First Niagara anchors the growth of Larkinville, downtown still struggles with the demise of the financial institutions that once promised hope. The collapse of Goldome and Empire of America in the early 1990s set a chill over a brief resurgence of demand for new office space. The lack of momentum is mostly unchanged since. Uncertainty now rests over the fate of the city’s tallest building, One HSBC Center, as the tower’s namesake and anchor tenant continues to reduce its North American presence. It’ll be vacating the building later this year.
While many see Larkinville as proof of the city’s renaissance, it more likely symbolizes the beginning of a culture shift. Negative perceptions of the city limits are increasingly fading away, making it more appealing for investment. But the region still struggles to create a robust economic climate, with stagnant employment and real estate ventures dependent mostly on the shuffling of companies from one building into another.
Still, the symbolism of a growing company moving from a semi-rural office park to an inner city revitalization effort is palpable. "Interacting with my fellow executives around town, there’s a bit of envy on their part," Koelmel says.
Zemsky says that's true of developers as well. "It changed the paradigm that you had to have a building 50 percent pre-leased," he says. Larkinville “opened peoples’ eyes up to appreciate historic buildings, to the idea of being in the city and to being a part of something aspirational," he says. "It’s become a metaphor for the city in general.”