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Editorial: Zemsky turned a scruffy district into a bustling neighborhood

Howard Zemsky could not have realized back in the late 1990s how his vision for reusing a rundown warehouse would lead the transformation of a moribund part of Buffalo into a vibrant, hip community.

The story of the former Hydraulics District, now Larkinville, is inspiring.

The energy there is palpable, from the crowds during Food Truck Tuesdays at Larkin Square, music at Live at Larkin KeyBank, gatherings for the author series or a game of pickleball, grabbing a bite to eat at the Filling Station, Hydraulic Hearth or the newest and in-demand culinary experience, the Swan Street Diner. Yes, Larkinville is a “thing” among baby boomers and especially millennials.

It is emblematic of the kind of revival that has occurred in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and now it is happening in Buffalo.
Not bad for what qualified as an urban wasteland less than 20 years ago. It once had been a thriving community with jobs, movie theaters, restaurants, drugstores. The works. But as the story so often goes in Rust Belt cities, the area sank into despair. People left. Businesses closed. Only the shadow of what was once great stood. Until Zemsky had an idea and rounded up a group of investors to form the Larkin Development Group, though no one could have been sure where this effort would lead.

It is easy now to conceptualize the possibilities. Hindsight is more than 20/20; it is hopping into your own time machine and picking that blockbuster stock just as it hits the market, or predicting which team will win the World Series or Super Bowl.

Zemsky, now 58, did not have the advantage of a crystal ball when he took a huge leap of faith. Naysayers scratched their heads over his decision to buy and renovate the 600,000-square-foot former Larkin Terminal warehouse building once owned by John D. Larkin and the historic Larkin Soap Co. The Brooklyn native and Long Island-reared transplant was on to something, the success of which was not guaranteed.

He had come to Buffalo shortly after college to run his family’s Russer Foods Buffalo operation. In the 1990s, Zemsky could look out the window of his office on Perry Street at the huge warehouses on Exchange Street once used by Larkin Soap and consider the possibilities. After Russer was sold, he began to act. It was the start of something big for Zemsky and his family – wife, Leslie; son, Harry; and daughter, Kayla; and her new husband, Michael Myers – and his adopted city.

News business reporter Jonathan D. Epstein documented the incredible changes that have occurred since the first office tenants moved into the renovated Larkin warehouse, now the Larkin at Exchange Building. Those early tenants went to work past cavernous empty buildings, underused properties and vacant lots. Today the area is bustling. Zemsky and Larkin Development have completed or are working on more than a dozen projects ranging from the just-opened diner to the 1.2-million-square-foot Larkin Center of Commerce Building.

News photographer Derek Gee’s striking aerial photos communicated both the scale of the work that has been done and Larkinville’s proximity to downtown. Epstein called it “a thriving commercial and entertainment area that is attracting a growing number of residents.”

Zemsky said Larkin Development has “90 percent of what it needs ‘for our vision,’ ” but does not rule out other purchases, adding that activity will pick up in the next six months.

Momentum draws in others who have taken their own leap, although with a lot less uncertainty. As James W. Cornell, one of the leaders of Larkin Center Management LLC, said in offering credit where due, Zemsky and his partners “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.”

Success on a large scale rarely happens overnight, but as Larkinville demonstrates, it starts with imagination, in combination with a huge dose of belief and persistence.

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