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Washington drops the ball on city's head

You can look out of his office window and see the HSBC Center the city's tallest building -- on the near horizon. You can drive into downtown from his office in a couple of minutes. Or hop on a bus. Or, on a nice day, ride your bike. And that is, and was, the point.

That is why Howard Zemsky and his partners nearly a decade ago spent $30 million to resurrect a grand old building on the edge of downtown. It would have been easier, cheaper and less risky to build new on an empty swath of suburban real estate. But Zemsky wanted to help the city, not hurt it. There has been enough done in recent decades to suck life out of Buffalo, he believed. He did not want to add to the avalanche.

So Zemsky and his partners put their money where their hearts and minds were. They took the vacant Graphic Controls Building off Seneca Street and remade it as Larkin at Exchange.

The rest has been history in the making.

Not only has the 10-story Larkin at Exchange Building become a fully occupied jewel at downtown's edge, Zemsky and partners have since bought 25 buildings and parcels on surrounding streets (see for yourself at video.buffalonews.com). His deeper stake encouraged other investors to jump in -- notably the recently announced $12 million remake of the massive Seneca Industrial Center.

"That's more than a million square feet of development, just in that building," said Zemsky -- tall, lean and laid-back -- in his office on a recent afternoon.

Not all of the investments rode on the back of Renewable Community tax breaks. But the federal program has helped -- here and in dozens of other hurting neighborhoods. It rewards developers for investing in struggling cities and for hiring local workers. It is an anti-sprawl, pro-public transit, smart-development gift that keeps on giving.

"Our deal here," Zemsky said, "has led to development commitments of more than $50 million on the surrounding blocks."

There is a lot to like, if you like the idea of helping Buffalo to help itself. It seems that folks in Washington do not. The program was, absurdly, left out of the federal tax relief bill signed last week. There is little chance it will be revived by year's end. The hope, Rep. Brian Higgins said, is for the Senate in the new year to pick up the ball it dropped. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand already is onboard.

"It helps cities like Buffalo become self-sufficient," Higgins said.

In the bigger picture, investment in the city slows suburban sprawl -- and its accompanying appetite for new roads and schools and sewer lines and everything else that jacks up taxes. The program helps to level the investment playing field; restoring old buildings is usually more expensive than building new on open suburban land. Beyond that, the tax breaks do not appear until after private dollars are spent.

"Nobody just writes you a check," Zemsky said. "You have to perform."

Washington has spent billions of dollars building and maintaining interstate highways that speed people out of cities. Its tax break on mortgage interest promotes homeownership, which is a disproportionately suburban phenomenon. We have watched cities built on heavy industry empty out for a half-century. Buffalo needs all the love it can get from Washington. Instead of a holiday gift, the city -- and the developers who want to invest here -- got a lump of coal.

Zemsky put down stakes on the edge of downtown. Where he and his partners led, others have followed. More will come -- if Washington helps them.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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