Buffalo Development: The Hydraulics/Larkin District
Building on placemaking and people first
Aerial view of the Hydraulics district, also known as the Larkin district, where existing structures have been transformed into office, residential, and entertainment spaces
Photo by Stephen Rosenthal
One of the most influential redevelopment projects the city has seen exists just east of downtown and just north of I-190 on Seneca Street, starting at Larkin Street, and running east to the intersection of Smith Street and Fillmore Avenue.
It’s popularly known as Larkinville and, while it’s true that the Larkin Development Group (LDG)—run by Howard Zemsky, with partners Joe Petrella and Leslie Zemsky—has spurred much of the redevelopment over the past ten-plus years, other major developers are playing big roles in the transformation of this neighborhood from forsaken to flourishing.
What was there
As the city’s earliest industrial neighborhood, the Hydraulics was influential in putting Buffalo on the map, thanks to its most famous tenant, the Larkin Co., whose warehouse and factory remnants still make up most of the area’s built environment. Booming through the nineteenth century, the neighborhood began declining after the Great Depression and, in the latter half of the twentieth century, was almost a ghost town. It is also home to one of the greatest losses in Buffalo’s architectural history, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Administration Building on Seneca Street.
“It’s reintroducing people to urban life. Even if it is a sanitized version of urban life, it is at least getting people comfortable with dense former industrial places.”
Grasping the potential
Chris Hawley, urban planner and historian of the Hydraulics, who has consulted with LDG, explains that Zemsky’s 2002 purchase of the vacant Larkin Terminal Warehouse, which began the development, was met with skepticism. There was little evidence that a return on the investment could be made. The real estate, still made up of quality, mostly sound buildings with plenty of transit access and parking, was what made it so attractive. Undeterred, the project moved forward with the vision that the Hydraulics could combine suburban experience with an urban location.
Thirteen years later, crowds flock to Larkin Square, the open-air center of the neighborhood, for concerts, events, or an after-work drink—the result of more than 2,000 people working in the neighborhood. Many of the employees are commuters who have gotten a positive experience out of urban life in Larkinville. “It’s reintroducing people to urban life. Even if it is a sanitized version of urban life, it is at least getting people comfortable with dense former industrial places,” comments Dana Saylor, local artist, genealogist, and preservationist. “I think whatever gets people to look at places with new eyes is definitely a positive.”
The LDG did not succeed without help. Throughout the development of Larkinville and the Hydraulics neighborhood at large there was consultation, collaboration, and partnership with corporations, local and state governments, community groups, historians, preservationists, community members, and urban planners. In a September 2012 Spree article on the development progress, Howard Zemsky explained that success in the neighborhood “... is closely tied to the project’s diverse partnerships across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, from First Niagara Bank to the New York State Brownfields Cleanup Program to the Old First Ward Community Association.” Additional consultations from Tim Tielman, principal with the Neighborhood Workshop LLC, and other area historic preservationists, urban planners and designers came together at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning’s Urban Design Project, which developed a master plan.
Development in the Hydraulics may have started with LDG in 2002, but it advanced two giant leaps when Seneca Larkin Holdings and Frontier Group/Savarino Companies stepped in to develop 701 Seneca and 500 Seneca, respectively. Now called the Larkin Center of Commerce, 701 Seneca, built in 1906, comprises ten contiguous buildings (which look like a single building) and one million square feet—thirty acres under one roof. Partners Peter Krog, Gordon Reger, and James Cornell have created class A office space, retail opportunities, and warehouse space within the massive structure, along with amenities like on-site dining, a stylish lobby, and monthly happy hours. What was once a massive scary labyrinth has become a true business incubator.
Formerly the F. N. Burt Company, built 1901–1927, 500 Seneca offers 180,000 square feet of commercial space and 106 residential units, making it the largest loft apartment space in the city. These units will be joined by hundreds of other apartments in the former A&P warehouse on Swan Street and the former A&P bakery at 550 Seneca. In a development that some might call “cart before the horse,” attractive amenities like concerts and food truck nights in Larkin Square and new restaurants and breweries have attracted the residential component needed to create a true neighborhood.
With thousands of people attending events at Larkinville, smaller investors have gotten interested, too. Nearby family taverns are being bought or remodeled, like Marinaro’s on Van Rensselaer Street, just a block away from the Larkin at Exchange building.
Photos by kc kratt
A citywide impact
Other neglected industrial sites are following the Hydraulics model. The Foundry Suites (landlords of Buffalo Spree) and Houk Lofts on Elmwood Avenue and Resurgence Brewing Company on Niagara Street are two examples, while the Old First Ward and Silo City, doing their own good work, cannot help but feel a symbiotic boost as more people see opportunities in these neighborhoods.
The Hydraulics district has become a human-focused neighborhood based on walkability and meant to attract office workers, local residents, and visitors to a place they would otherwise simply zoom past on the highway. By considering the historical and preservationist aspects, building a wide group of interested and invested stakeholders and developing the neighborhood with people first, the twenty-first century Hydraulics neighborhood has proved the value of placemaking principles to a city saddled with outmoded silver bullet development mentalities that simply no longer apply.
Joseph DiDomizio contributes to Spree on a wide range of topics.
For additional commentary by five Buffalo professionals who are involved in the city’s planning and built environment, click here.