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Proposal boosts the East Side Development plan is plus for city as well as Seneca-Fillmore area

Both John D. Larkin and Darwin D. Martin would be proud to see what a group of businessmen -- a group not just interested in the bottom line but passionate about history and preservation -- is doing to their old commercial neighborhood. The passion and drive that revitalized the Larkin at Exchange building is expanding into a community enhancement project with exciting possibilities for part of the East Side.

In July 2002, CityView Properties plunged into a redevelopment project involving a massive, 600,000-square-foot warehouse building decaying on Exchange Street. Many thought that isolated rehabilitation project impossible. CityView saw a piece of history, a once-proud Larkin Co. facility replete with 10-foot windows and glorious views. Without a single tenant lined up beforehand, the development group set out to design office spaces to specification, creating unique work spaces and rounding off the effort with historical displays. They believed people would come. And they did. The building is 98 percent leased.

Now the group has its sights set on new office, retail and residential development in a 10-year plan that should inject more vitality into the Larkin neighborhood. Led by Howard Zemsky with his partners, Bill Jones, Joe Petrella and Doug Swift, the plan would create a "Larkin District" around the Larkin at Exchange building. The group has made more than a dozen separate acquisitions of parcels of land, small buildings and contiguous parcels so that the planning can proceed.

A parking structure in the back of the Larkin building was designed for more capacity than needed, so that some surface parking could be removed and the land used for building development. The social atmosphere within Larkin at Exchange is fostered by a restaurant, convenience store and fitness center, and by day care run by the Valley Community Association. A First Niagara bank branch is being added, and will also serve the neighborhood.

The Larkin building is a success story, a combination of history and modern amenities replete with new infrastructure, windows, digital controls and a commitment to and respect for its architectural past. CityView Properties deserves praise and encouragement for envisioning a similarly enhanced and vibrant neighborhood around it, extending to a landscaped "Larkin Circle" at the intersection of Seneca and Smith Streets and Fillmore Avenue.

Conventional wisdom had always been to lease a substantial portion of a building before making any redevelopment moves, and to seek connections to existing development zones -- avoiding, for example, such "isolated" sites as the Larkin Co. warehouse or the not-too-distant Central Terminal as too risky. Many developers still operate under that philosophy, but the Larkin project undoubtedly changed some thinking. It's a gratifying project for both the developers and the community.

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