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A whimsical public square founded on smart urban design opens to the public this week in the Larkin District, which not long ago was a downtrodden industrial area squeezed between the East Side and South Buffalo.

It's unlike anything anywhere in Buffalo.

The opening comes 10 years to the month after the first modern investment in the district, when a development company bought a massive, empty building and converted it into quality office space a mile east of downtown.

"It's real great for the neighborhood. A lot of these buildings were just vacant. The whole Seneca Street, from here up to Fillmore [Avenue], is like another city," said Ernest Gladden, who has watched the projects take root where Seneca and Swan streets converge from nearby Seymour Street.

Since reviving the renamed Larkin at Exchange, the Larkin Development Group has been buying and rehabilitating other nearby brick-and-cement buildings built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to go with the nearby Kamman Building that has been restored. And there are plans to do much more.

This summer, though, the attention will be on Larkin Square, which has released the creativity of developer Howard Zemsky, his wife, Leslie Zemsky, and urban design consultant Tim Tielman.

There are accents of Vespa green and pink, and arty chairs spread about to lounge on. An elevated picnic area influenced by a South Beach lifeguard station rises above oversized tiles meant to resemble a kitchen floor. A wooden covered walkway inspired by the former Art El in Artpark connects workers to the company's parking ramp and beckons them to the plaza.

Adding to the atmosphere is the Filling Station, a retro restaurant with an outdoor patio in a former gas station and an open-air grill coming later this week, and Square 1 Sandwiches, housed in a kitschy, 1964 aluminum Airstream.

Music is also on the menu: "Live at Larkin" will present local performers in Larkin Square from 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays, from June 20 through Sept. 19. It's presented by First Niagara Bank and will coincide with the Larkin Square Marketplace. (For more information, visit www.larkinsquare.com.)

For small children, there are rocks to climb and little pedal cars to drive, while kids of all ages can play "pickle ball" -- a cross between badminton, tennis and pingpong -- on a tennis court-like surface.

"The rocks were on the site, and when I saw them, I said we have to be able to have kids play King of the Mountain. So we'll have a pile of rocks for them to clamber on," Tielman said.

Even the parking lot is unusual: The pink-tinted stone Car Park, which isn't striped, is designed for multiple uses besides parking, like in Europe.

"I look at it from a businessman's standpoint, and they don't need to do this," said Jerry Young of Young Wright Architectural, which rents the first floor of the Larkin Development Group's Schaefer Building across the street, below two newly rented loft apartments.

"They have a full building over there. They're doing this to return something to the neighborhood, and I think it's fantastic."

The district was dubbed "Larkinville" by First Niagara Financial Group President and CEO John Koelmel, a term that seems to have stuck. The area is poised to join the city's growing list of emerging destinations, according to Louis Grachos, executive director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

"The Larkin project really illustrates in a very contemporary way how these once-forgotten neighborhoods can become vital again. I think it needs to be celebrated -- it's a great achievement," Grachos said.

Today, the 2,000 people working in the Larkin District are 300 more than in John Larkin's soapmaking heyday. The Larkin Company in 1929 submitted plans to the City of Buffalo for a public common area known as "Larkin Square." That was three years after Larkin's death, but the plan appears to have been turned down.

The Larkin Co. was known for innovation in marketing, sales and distribution, as well as progressive ideas in areas such as employee health care and recreation, according to Howard Stanger, a Canisius College professor who has studied the company.

"The Larkin Co. never said, 'Let's just do what other people have done.' They would always say, 'How can we do it better and different?' It gives us the freedom to do it, too," said Zemsky, the majority owner and managing partner of the four-member Larkin Development Group.

Developing Larkinville has allowed Zemsky to use his skills as a developer and passion for preservation to resurrect the Hydraulics, the city's earliest manufacturing district, named for the Hydraulics Canal in the 1830s.

The Hydraulics saw its first real boom in the 1840s when Buffalo was connected by rail to the Hudson River, according to Chris Hawley, an urban historian writing a book on the Hydraulics. He said 87 businesses could be found on Seneca Street between Larkin and Smith streets in 1900.

Decades later, Seneca Street traffic and commercial businesses dried up in large part due to urban renewal -- Buffalo's master plan in 1964 identified it as a future slum clearance area -- and construction of Interstate 190.

Another blow was the demolition of Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Administration Building in 1950, widely considered to be one of his greatest works.

Anthony "Chuck" Guido Jr., who has run the nearby Custom Canvas Manufacturing Co. for 51 years, remembers when Seneca Street was filled with restaurants and candy; hardware, furniture and jewelry stores; and doctor and dental offices.

After a decline that Guido said began in 1978, he is encouraged by what's happening.

"It's been infectious. I was thinking of redoing my parking lot, so when I saw them doing that I did mine. I just wanted to join," Guido said.

His daughter, Karen Gaiser, also appreciates the changes.

"It went from a lot of businesses on Seneca Street down to a ghost town, before Howard Zemsky started everything. He's doing a good job in the neighborhood," she said.

The civic-minded Zemsky, who was recently confirmed to head the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, is co-chairman of the Regional Economic Development Council and vice chairman of the H.H. Richardson Center Corp.

He is quick to minimize his role while giving credit to others, such as First Niagara's Koelmel for moving the bank's headquarters into the Larkin U Building -- a significant development for Larkin Development and a vote of confidence -- and for helping pay for the decorative streetscape that extends three-tenths of a mile.

Koelmel sends the praise right back to Zemsky.

"We had opportunities to go other places, but the appeal was being part of revitalizing and rebuilding a neighborhood," Koelmel said. "Howard's vision was an easy decision, versus setting up in a shiny new building in the 'burbs."

Much of the plaza was conceptualized by Tielman, a preservationist who has often found himself in the middle of battles to save endangered places from Buffalo's past. Tielman went with Zemsky to Europe for a week in November 2009 to scout for ideas.

Decisions were made with an eye toward breaking down the area's industrial scale, from building height to block width, and to provide a wide range of visitor-friendly experiences.

"These are the types of things we've advocated in historic preservation through the years. There are things about traditional urbanism that just work," Tielman said.

Tielman said Zemsky is open to ideas from anyone, as long as they're good.

"Howard has the courage to try things out that people in his position normally wouldn't do. He comes at things from a different angle, and that has huge civic benefits."

Future plans for the district include building more office space, mixed-use retail and apartments, and reclaiming the Swan Lounge, poised to become an industrial-chic bar.

For Leslie Zemsky, the project's "Director of Happiness," the sky is the limit at Larkin Plaza.

Her contributions in recent months include planning special family-friendly events, designing art for an ice-cream cart, creating the "pickle ball" play site, commissioning white-and-pink hula hoops and approving a rotation of musicians and others to entertain on site.

Success in Larkinville could soon breed more. The Savarino Cos. in 2010 bought the F.N. Burt Co. plant at nearby Seneca and Hamburg streets and is working with FFC Holdings to purchase adjacent properties to create Class A office space.

Buying the buildings, Savarino said, would not have happened without Zemsky & Co. blazing the trail first.

"They went over there and created a neighborhood and market. We're fortunate to have an opportunity to do something, but none of that would have been contemplated if they hadn't taken the risk," Savarino said.

email: msommer@buffnews.com