By Mary G.
Over the last 20 years, the Larkin Development Group has been transforming Buffalo’s historic district into Larkinville. Its goal is to “have the complete neighborhood, where it’s living spaces, working space, retail space,” Harry Zemsky, owner of Hydraulic Hearth.
Harry Zemsky overlooks his restaurant and bar, along with his next-door neighbor the Swan St. Diner, and the free event programs in Larkin Square. These include free concerts, and Food Truck Tuesdays in the summer months, which he says “put us on the map.” Mr. Zemsky is also part of the larger family who comprises the Lakin Development Group.
The ever-expanding Larkinville area, bordered by Eagle St. and the I-90 North and South, and Fillmore Ave. to Jefferson St. East to West, is known as the “Hydraulics District.” Given its name for the hand-dug canals from the 1800s, this area was Buffalo’s first manufacturing district.
The Larkin Soap Company, headed by John Larkin, was the catalyst for the neighborhood’s success at the time. The company was “basically the amazon.com of the time,” Mr. Zemsky states; their bulk mail orders were transported on the railroads.
Mr. Zemsky also speaks on the architectural significance of the soap manufacturer, who became friends with Darwin Martin, the businessman who brought Frank Lloyd Wright to Buffalo to build his now historic home. After this construction, John Larkin was convinced to let Wright design an administration building. This was “a complete game changer in the way that commercial office space is designed,” Mr. Zemsky explains, however, the Frank Lloyd Wright Administration Building of Larkinville was torn down in the 1950s.
“All the teeth of the buildings that you see around now, the skyline, are all old Larkin Soap Company buildings,” Mr. Zemsky explains. His restaurant, Hydraulic Hearth, among many others, was built in pre-existing these buildings.
In the early 2000s, the Zemsky family bought the Terminal Warehouse, an old train terminal for the Larkin Soap Company, making it into office space. Since then, they have “embarked on slowly but surely bringing back pieces of the neighborhood.”
While Larkinville isn’t necessarily a restaurant district, Mr. Zemsky gives the reason for the number of restaurants rather than, say, retail space as: “There’s no critical mass of people living down here still.” He explains, “to have an open and viable retail business, you need to be a destination.” The path to doing so is to optimize on demand for alcohol and food.
On deciding what businesses enter Larkinville, Mr. Zemsky says he looks for “anything that [the development group] thinks people would enjoy and adds to the neighborhood.”
One of these businesses new to the area is Ben Johnson’s boutique chocolate shop. Mr. Johnson owns Blue Table Chocolates and is the parent of Mia, a junior at SEM.
Blue Table Chocolates used to be located in the Five Points neighborhood on the West Side. Eventually, they outgrew the small space, and after problems with air, plumbing, and WiFi, they “decided to find a new home,” in January of this year, Mr. Johnson says.
They opened this Saturday, Nov 12, and are now open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. While it’s “too early yet to see any impact on sales or walk-in traffic,” Mr. Johnson says that “the new space is infinitely more usable so far, and we are able to really have fun with the aesthetic.” The new shop has a surreal waving wooden wall, displaying their chocolates with a sleek, clean look.
When asked if he would recommend Larkinville to other business owners, Mr. Johnson shared his moving experience thus far saying the area “has been very welcoming,” and explained his hopes for the future: “we have big hopes for an increased summer business” due to the free events in Larkin Square.
Larkin Square and its events, as well as Larkin Development Company’s continuous new-builds, serve as magnets for foot-traffic and business in Buffalo in the growing neighborhood. All that’s left: drawing residents to develop a lively retail scene.