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Larkinville is urban development done right

On a balmy Wednesday afternoon in mid-June, a trio of firefighters stood on the roof of their station at Swan and Seneca streets surveying a crowd of about 3,000 spread out across Larkin Square.

As the sun dipped behind the fire station and the staccato notes of Mary Ramsey's violin rendition of "Over the Rainbow" ricocheted off the buildings surrounding the square, wide-eyed visitors to Buffalo's newest urban park asked themselves some variation of the same question: "Could I possibly be in Buffalo right now?"

If not for the frothy Blue Lights in their hands, they might not have been able to come up with an answer.

The scene that day, carefully engineered for a list of invited guests and media, was so idyllic as to be almost comical. It was something to do with the almost surreal bright green color of Larkin Square's newly laid grass and its perfectly manicured gardens; the spit-shined gleam of the retrofitted 1964 Airstream trailer dispensing espresso and "hand-crafted sandwiches"; the almost too perfectly prim retro setup of the newly opened Filling Station restaurant. A row of food trucks dispensing gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, braised pork, burgers, tacos and -- no lie -- several different kinds of high-end toast, also played into the "Where the heck am I?" vibe.

On a typical Wednesday night this summer during events to which the public is invited, the scene won't be quite as picture-perfect. But this project -- initiated by the Larkin Development Group under the guidance of businessman Howard Zemsky, designed with the help of preservationist and urban planning expert Tim Tielman and infused with culture by Howard's wife, Leslie Zemsky, along with omnipresent culture maven Seamus Gallivan -- is an example of urban place-making done right.

It doesn't quite make up for the long-lamented 1950 demolition of Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Administration Building, but it's a step in the right direction in a city that has been slow to embrace progressive urban development.

The primary audience of Larkin Square (alternately known as Larkinville) is the 2,000 or so people who work in the buildings that are part of the larger Larkin District, a growing community of companies that have breathed new life into an area that once thrived under the legendary Larkin Company.

The square's dedication to surrounding businesses, with neighbors and the public invited as well, is its key virtue. Because Buffalo is a city of disparate districts each striving for an elusive critical mass of businesses, residences and culture, it hardly needs another stand-alone outpost struggling to attract crowds.

It also benefits from the integration of cultural programming from its inception, rather than the tertiary role to which culture is sometimes relegated in these projects.

Leslie Zemsky, "director of happiness" for Larkinville, has made sure culture is central. With Gallivan's help, the square will welcome audiences on Wednesday nights this summer for the "Live at Larkin" concert series. Larkin's first artist-in-residence, painter Amy Greenan, began her tenure there last week. And the second annual Echo Art Fair takes over the square July 7.

In too many development projects, no-brainers like integrating the arts and creating welcoming environments for residents have been elusive. We've been conditioned to think of urban public spaces, especially those nestled between busy corporations, as pleasant but vaguely unfriendly places to pass through -- certainly not places to go to on purpose.

Larkin Square, like Canalside before it, is different. Its completion bodes well for the city at large.