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Larkinville’s renaissance surges into a housing boom

There’s a new vibe in Larkinville, and it’s not just offices, music or food trucks. It’s home.

The growing district east of downtown is already known for its sprawling former industrial warehouses converted to trendy office space for several businesses.

Now Larkinville’s rise and renewal bring something else: residents.

Over the next year, the onetime industrial and shipping district will become home to several hundred new loft apartments. Three enormous block warehouses at almost the same intersection are simultaneously being transformed by three different developers into the latest residential space in downtown Buffalo. Located at 500 and 550 Seneca St. and at 545 Swan St., the buildings will include at least 281 apartments, plus office space, restaurants, a distillery and amenities for tenants.

“The more the merrier down here,” said developer Samuel Savarino, whose Savarino Companies is leading the redevelopment of 500 Seneca. “That’s the kind of changes that happen when you have a lot people concentrated in one area.”

The developers are counting on the new buzz around Larkinville among employers and partygoers to lure people eager to live in a hip new place. And they are betting that they will be the first of many such ventures in the onetime industrial district.

Five years ago, you never could have thought of doing this project. You didn’t have the critical mass. You didn’t have the infrastructure,” said David Pawlik, president of CSS Construction, which teamed with Frontier Group of Companies to convert 550 Seneca. “You have so much more further potential there. It’s exciting, and it’s the right timing.”

The first 41 units, at the new Seneca Street Lofts at 550 Seneca, are completed and open, with 30 already occupied and at least five more under contract.

The Hydraulic Lofts, at 500 Seneca, has reservation deposits for 40 of the 100 units, even before starting to market them. A “mock-up” unit is now ready for viewing, while the first units will be ready for occupancy by Dec. 1. Prices range from $750 for studios to $1,950 for two-bedroom units.

So far, most tenants are young professionals, singles and couples, and many work in Larkinville, said Brian Burke, whose E.F. Burke Realty Co. is managing 550 Seneca. But there are also some empty-nesters.

Jeff Kaluzny, a Verizon Communications employee who was living with his parents in West Seneca, now lives in one of the new units with his best friend from childhood. The best friend moved back to Buffalo from Las Vegas and is now the service manager at Basil Resale South in Lackawanna.

The two pay $595 each per month, which includes a fee for indoor parking, for a spacious two-bedroom unit on the third floor, with a polished cement floor, new appliances and exposed ductwork in the high ceiling above.

“I’ve been looking for a location like this for a few years,” said Kaluzny, 27. “It’s cool to be a part of the rejuvenation of the city. This building and area was neglected and ugly. Now they rubbed the dirt off and made it new again. It’s part of the solution and no longer part of the problem.”

New Urbanism

While Exchange Street and parts of Seneca and Swan streets are largely commercial or industrial, many of the side streets and even large stretches of both Seneca and Swan are filled with homes – some in the shadows of the three big warehouse buildings. They are part of longtime working-class neighborhoods – including one called Little Hollywood – that grew up decades ago around the local businesses. And there’s little turnover.

“There’s a ton of residential down here and has been for decades,” said Howard Zemsky, managing partner of Larkin Development Group and now the state’s lead economic development guru as CEO of Empire State Development Corp. “We haven’t had adaptive reuse residential yet, but we’re now seeing that in much larger scale.”

The new apartments are aimed at the population of younger professionals and couples who are driving the return to inner-city living. With features like industrial lighting and high warehouse ceilings, exposed ducts and brick walls with fading paint, unusual nooks, original wood plank flooring from factory days, and mushroom-cloud-shaped steel-reinforced concrete columns that narrow on the upper floors, these units are designed to attract urban dwellers who want new space but not something cookie-cutter.

“The historic buildings have a history and a feeling and a character to them that are unique,” Zemsky said. “They have certain idiosyncrasies and qualities that you wouldn’t always find in a building.”

And while a few new single-family homes have been built along streets like Division and Swan, the new apartments represent the most significant housing development in that area in a long time, and a return to the past when residents and businesses shared the landscape.

“That’s the irony of New Urbanism. It’s a lot like Old Urbanism,” Zemsky said. “We’re really re-creating that whole vibe.”

About a decade

The investments in the three buildings, totaling $70 million in all, marks the latest example of big changes on the fringes of downtown Buffalo. They’re creating a new buzz in one of the oldest areas of the city, where many of its cavernous warehouses, production facilities and office buildings had long been neglected, underused or vacant.

That changed after Zemsky and his partners bought and renovated a warehouse into the Larkin at Exchange Building about a decade ago. The runaway success of that venture – the eight-story, 600,000-square-foot building is fully occupied – spurred further investment.

Additional buildings were renovated and put back on the market for office or light manufacturing space, including the Larkin U Building, the Schaeffer Building, the Kamman Building and the sprawling Larkin Center of Commerce. Still others are in developers’ sights.

“It’s been a great 10 years, but the feeling now is the snowball’s really gathering some momentum, and that’s a great thing to be involved with,” said Joseph Petrella, one of Zemsky’s partners.

The Larkin at Exchange Building now houses the corporate headquarters for First Niagara, which invested in streetscape and lighting improvements and helped Zemsky create Larkin Square as a hub for entertainment at the Seneca-Swan intersection.

Meanwhile, breweries, distilleries, restaurants and other entertainment venues are now opening as well. More than 116,000 people a year now come to Larkin Square events, including Food Truck Tuesday, Live at Larkin Wednesday, the Larkin Market, the Larkin Author series and holiday events, Zemsky said. And a handful of apartments are now available in smaller buildings, right above new stores, restaurants or office space on the first floor.

Development continues

The nature of the fortress-like buildings being converted to housing – all three date from the same era – allows for innovative features and treatments, such as incorporating the columns or imposing black fire doors into the walls, showers or living areas of apartments. The solid walls and floors also provide built-in sound insulation so that residents don’t hear anything.

“You have a chance for things to be unique,” Savarino said. “It’s a pain in the neck, sometimes, the way things are, to try and figure out how it will work. But it gives you a chance.”

In all, Zemsky said, the Larkin district will have undergone renovation on more than 2 million square feet of space by various developers and investors, and that won’t be the end.

Larkin Development owns many more properties in the district than it did 10 years ago – including a parking lot at 111 Hydraulic St. and the vacant three-acre AmeriPride site, as well as homes, warehouses and other sites. And Zemsky and his partners have plans for them.

“It’s sort of a dream come true, so to speak,” Zemsky said. “It’s nice to have the opportunity to have been involved in its earliest stages and then, 12 years later, to watch it come to fruition. And I’m excited that others have been investing in the neighborhood.”

500 Seneca

Five years ago, developer Samuel Savarino and partner Frontier Group of Companies bought the former F.N. Burt Co. box-making plant at 500 Seneca St. from New Era Cap Co. for $200,000.

Three years later, he proposed converting the 306,000-square-foot facility into a mixture of apartments and commercial space, dubbed Hydraulic Lofts and designed by Chaintreuil Jensen Stark Architects. Today, that vision is nearly complete.

The 150,000 square feet of Class A commercial office space is nearly completed and largely spoken for, with tenants including Liberty Mutual Corp. of Boston, collections agency ABC-Amega Inc., Bradford Energy, Bene-Care Agency, Provident Funding, Nervve Technologies, Leadership Buffalo, Oracle, a data center and Tommyrotters Distillery. Many have already occupied their space.

Meanwhile, construction is proceeding quickly on the residential space, with leasing to begin shortly and the first units becoming available in January.

The $36 million project will have 100 apartments ranging in size from 560 square feet to 3,000 square feet, with rent from $555 to $2,700 for the top-floor corner unit. Twenty different layouts are available, with open floor plans, high ceilings, exposed brick walls, high-end fixtures and finishes, wide factory or ganged-sash windows, and either polished concrete or restored cherry wood floors.

The building will also include a three-story covered indoor atrium with a skylight, as well as a private open courtyard and a planned rooftop patio. There will also be a restaurant and a cafeteria or bistro, plus a wine cellar, a two-story fitness center, a first-floor spa and salon, climate-controlled bicycle and tenant storage, meeting space, a pet day care and secure parking on four different lots.

Danielle Becker, 25, wanted to be near her job at Kaleida Health’s offices in the Larkin at Exchange Building, so she put down a deposit. She would be just four minutes from her office, which “couldn’t get better.”

“I just wanted to move downtown,” said Becker, who now lives in Lancaster. “Downtown Buffalo is really rebuilding. It’s the place to be. All of my friends want to move downtown.”

550 Seneca

It’s been known for decades as the former A&P Bakery building, but the 92,000-square-foot former warehouse has a new life as the Seneca Street Lofts.

Frontier Group of Companies bought the four-story building at 550 Seneca St. for $385,000 in March 2014, and teamed up with David Pawlik’s CSS Construction as an investor and general contractor for a $6 million renovation and conversion into 41 high-end loft apartments.

The one- and two-bedroom apartments range in size from 750 to 1,400 square feet, and rent for $800 to $1,395, with features such as ceramic tile floors, granite countertops, hardwood floors, and high warehouse ceilings. The units are already finished and open, and most are now leased and occupied, largely by a population of young professionals.

“I like the look and feel of it, the rustic look. It’s spacious,” said Jeff Kaluzny, a 27-year-old Verizon Communications employee and new resident of the building. “We were trying to come down to the city. We were down here more often than not because our friends are here.”

The project – which also includes 7,500 square feet of office space, tenant and rental storage space, 72 temperature-controlled indoor parking spaces and extra parking outside – was designed by Carmina Wood Morris. Contractors replaced the roof, repointed the facade, upgraded utilities, and cut out and installed new windows.

545 Swan

The third conversion of a giant warehouse into at least 120 units has not moved beyond the planning stages.

Cincinnati developer Miller-Valentine Group plans to spend more than $26 million to convert the eight-story former A&P warehouse and storage facility at 545 Swan St. into a mixture of 120 to 140 apartments, underground parking and first-floor commercial space.

Miller-Valentine has a contract to buy the 238,000-square-foot building from former owner Mesmer Refrigeration, but is yet to close the deal.

The building was initially targeted by developer Rocco Termini and others for a $42 million renovation for the Buffalo City Mission, but that plan was dropped.

The Miller-Valentine project, announced in fall 2014, was approved by the Buffalo Planning Board last year. Architect Steven Carmina said Miller-Valentine officials recently finished a structural study in preparation for moving forward with the project.

Founded in 1963 as a small general contractor, Miller-Valentine provides construction, leasing, property management, brokerage and development services, and has completed projects in 20 states. This would be its first in New York.