A century ago, the area now known as Larkinville in Buffalo was a densely packed community, with restaurants, drugstores, movie theaters, a bowling alley, ice cream shops and other businesses, with apartments above.
"I think there were 40 restaurants and bars from Van Rensselaer Street to Smith Street," said Howard Zemsky, the businessman-turned-developer-turned-state-official who has led efforts to revive the former Hydraulics District. "Every inch of property was a building."
That's now in the distant past. But Zemsky – with his wife, Leslie, and two adult children – is determined to bring it back.
The Zemskys and their partners in Larkin Development Group have already beaten expectations with the pioneering conversion of an old warehouse into the Larkin at Exchange Building. They've renovated other buildings, lured new businesses and other developers, unveiled new restaurants and created a buzz through Larkin Square, food trucks and concerts.
Now that they're past the initial riskiness of the first projects, the Zemskys say they still see plenty more opportunities to fulfill their dream.
"Look at how much has changed in seven years," Howard Zemsky said. "Every time we put another piece in place for the future of this neighborhood, it only accelerates the rate of potential change going forward."
To be sure, Larkin Development isn't the only developer transforming the neighborhood.
Larkin Center Management – led by James W. Cornell and Gordon Reger – redeveloped the former Seneca Industrial Center into 1.3 million square feet of new office, industrial and warehouse space. Three nearby projects are turning former daylight factories into apartments, and others are moving forward with projects.
But as Howard Zemsky, who heads the state's economic development agency, has stepped back from his work in Larkinville, his wife and kids have stepped up, turning their efforts in Larkinville into a family affair.
"This is a multi-generational family business," said Howard Zemsky, who now spends much of his time out of town in his statewide role as chief executive of Empire State Development Corp. "So as much as we've done in the last 15-plus years, we've got another very interesting 15-plus years ahead."
Their efforts are entering a new stage. Their team has bought up more than 40 parcels, commercial buildings and houses in the neighborhood, with plans for more development. Earlier this month, Larkin Development opened the Swan Street Diner in an 80-year-old diner car they transported from Wayne County. It's next to the Hydraulic Hearth restaurant and beer garden.
Both the restaurant and diner are operated by the Zemskys' son, Harry, who also plans to reopen a long-vacant bowling alley down the street with a "fun and funky" touch akin to the lively Brooklyn Bowl in New York City.
"The diner is going to be a big change factor for the neighborhood," Leslie Zemsky said. "It is attracting so many people to come down to Larkinville who have never been there before."
Meanwhile, their daughter, Kayla, and her new husband, Michael Myers, are starting to rehab the former Larkin Men's Club, a onetime social hall just across the street. The couple wants to convert the building into a commercial and residential building, dubbed City Clubhouse, that will open in fall 2019.
And Leslie Zemsky, who became involved at her husband's request in 2012 as "director of fun" for Larkin Square, has increasingly taken on more responsibility and visibility as a partner alongside her husband and Joseph Petrella.
"It's amazing to watch how some of the smaller projects and events play a significant role in the growth of the neighborhood," Leslie Zemsky said. "It's really adding to the fabric, and makes other retail and food operations seem very viable."
Fulfilling a dream
The transformation of Larkinville – one of the oldest industrial districts in the city – has been a long-term venture for Zemsky, ever since the 1999 sale of his family's Russer Foods to Iowa Beef Processing and then to Tyson Foods.
Zemsky, 58, moved to Buffalo shortly after college to run the family's Buffalo operations. From his office window on Perry Street, he could see the hulking warehouses on Exchange Street once used by Larkin Soap Co.
By the late 1990s, as manufacturer Graphic Controls moved out, one of the buildings went up for sale. Zemsky, fascinated by its history, imagined a different future. He had seen how former industrial and warehouse districts were re-imagined in other cities and thought, "We could do that in Buffalo on a larger scale."
After leaving Iowa Beef and Russer in 2001, Zemsky formed an investment firm and later teamed up with Petrella and others to buy and redevelop the sprawling warehouse at 726 Exchange St., now the main Larkin Building. It was a major undertaking that some questioned, given the perceived condition of the neighborhood at the time. But Zemsky knew from 20 years of working in the neighborhood that it was safer and more stable than people realized.
"I did not know at the time all that we would do, but I knew if we got traction, it could keep us busy for many years, since there was no shortage of rehab opportunity in the surrounding blocks," Zemsky said.
Over the next few years, they dispelled doubts, filling the vast building with major tenants including Kaleida Health, First Niagara Financial Group, law firms, nonprofits and other offices. First Niagara expanded to the adjacent Larkin U Building, and Larkin Development also renovated the Schaefer Building at 740 Seneca for Young + Wright Architects.
Convinced they were on to something, the Zemskys and their Larkin Development partners didn't stop. In pursuit of their vision, the team has acquired more than 40 parcels, commercial buildings and houses in that neighborhood, mostly in the triangular area stretching from Van Rensselaer to Smith, between Seneca and Exchange streets. They've also worked with the city and First Niagara – now KeyCorp – on streetscape improvements and the development of Larkin Square.
The goal was to own as much as possible of that land early on, when it was affordable, even if they didn't have a firm plan for it yet.
"The risk as we started to get traction was to not acquire the properties and to continue to invest in the neighborhood and drive up the values of the properties and make it more difficult to control later on," Howard Zemsky said.
Today, Larkin Development has 90 percent of what it needs "for our vision," Zemsky said. But he doesn't rule out other purchases.
Next on the agenda are about a half-dozen sites targeted for residential and commercial development, including new apartment buildings with first-floor retail and commercial space, as well as recreational space that could include tennis and basketball courts, a mini golf-course and greenspace.
Foremost on the list is a sprawling gravel-covered lot at 111 Hydraulic St., which has already been cleaned up for re-use. Larkin Development has completed some preliminary plans, envisioning a multi-story building with as many as 80 apartments, but Zemsky said he expects they will "start to be more active" in the next six months, noting that the brownfield tax credits will expire if they wait too long. "I wouldn't be surprised if we start constructing there sometime in 2018," he said.
Zemsky said the focus now is on the next five years and on re-assessing the landscape to figure out their next move.
Not just the Zemskys
While the Zemskys took the initial risks, the redevelopment of Larkinville isn't just their purview.
Larkin Center Management LLC – led by James W. Cornell and Gordon Reger – spent more than $30 million to buy and redevelop the former Seneca Industrial Center at 701 Seneca St. into the Larkin Center of Commerce, with over 1.3 million square feet of new office, industrial and warehouse space.
The group owns 6 acres of property, several multifamily homes and the 100,000-square-foot former Larkin engineering and boiler building at the corner of Seneca and Larkin streets, which Cornell said they plan to renovate into a new residential building.
"Howard and his partners should be very proud of the fact that they took the first lift, and provided the lift for everyone else to think that investing in the district would be a wise thing to do, and it certainly has proved to be that for us," Cornell said. "It's a collective effort. What Howard and his partners have done is laudable, but they are one part of the resurgence of the Larkin District."
Other companies and developers also joined in. CJS Architects redeveloped the Kamman Building at 755 Seneca St., while new tenants moved into the neighborhood. Flying Bison Brewery occupied an old building at 840 Seneca St., and Buffalo Distilling took up space in a former carriage manufacturing building.
Still other developers are transforming three enormous former daylight factory warehouses into new apartments and commercial space a few blocks away near Seneca and Hamburg streets. Two are completed – 500 and 550 Seneca – while the third, at 545 Swan St., is underway.
"It's certainly accurate to say that, what we've done over here in our neighborhood with our partners, none of that would have happened had Larkin not been developed," said Samuel Savarino, whose Savarino Companies led the redevelopment of 500 Seneca, a former factory warehouse that is now a thriving residential and commercial building just east of Larkinville.
Savarino is also renovating a former church school at Elk and Smith streets, on the other side of Larkinville.
There's been increased demand to live in Larkinville, too. The neighborhood has always had some residents, but now they're coming back to the core, buying homes to renovate or snapping up available apartments. "We don't even have to advertise them," Zemsky said.
Individual property owners are getting into the act as well, targeting two-story, turn-of-the-century homes to rehab. In some cases, Larkin Development supported those efforts, performing the initial stabilization work and then selling them to individuals or couples to finish.
Zemsky sees more opportunity with each new development, as new projects spur more retail to serve new residents.
"With each passing year, the next phase of the project starts to assume less risk," Howard Zemsky said. "The riskiest was buying the big building in the neighborhood that was in utter disrepair in every manner, way, shape and form."