After: A rendering of 500 Seneca as it looks today.
Courtesy Savarino Cos. After: A rendering of 500 Seneca as it looks today.

The Larkin District in Buffalo, N.Y., can thank a lack of money for its recent renaissance.

Timing and, ironically, a poor economy have made the difference as to why many 19th- and early 20th–century wood, brick, and concrete manufacturing facilities in the century-old factory town have survived and been renovated as both commercial and residential spaces.

“After their heyday, and due to Buffalo’s economy at the time, there was no money to demolish them and build new,” explains locally based architect Robert E. Stark, partner at CJS Architects.

Before: The building was constructed in1901 for a paper-box manufacturer. The structure was added on to through the years, then occupied by a baseball-cap maker.
Courtesy Savarino Cos. Before: The building was constructed in1901 for a paper-box manufacturer. The structure was added on to through the years, then occupied by a baseball-cap maker.

Planning for Buffalo’s rebirth started several years before the 2008 economic collapse, with development focused mostly on its waterfront and medical campus rather than salvaging the Larkin-area factories, since that neighborhood had become less desirable. An exception was Howard and Leslie Zemsky’s Larkin Development Group, which began rehabbing icons such as the 1911 Terminal Warehouse, once home to the Larkin Soap Co., into commercial offices.

“The deterioration, abandonment, and dishevelment of the buildings as well as the public infrastructure, particularly along Seneca Street [a thoroughfare], presented us with a daunting challenge,” says Leslie Zemsky.

Samuel J. Savarino, president and CEO of Savarino Cos., who renovated old warehouses for mixed-use development elsewhere in Buffalo, became interested in a 325,000-square-foot complex, also located on Seneca, as the economy recovered.

Originally, the building housed one of the world’s largest paper-box manufacturers, the F.N. Burt Co., in a 1901 wood structure that grew to include numerous brick and concrete, four- to six-story additions up through 1927. In 1959, the company moved to suburban Cheektowaga, according to city planner and local history buff Chris Hawley, who writes The Hydraulics Press blog. A major sports-cap manufacturer, New Era Cap Co., moved in, then relocated in 2004. Once vacant, the unmaintained building deteriorated.

Diamond in the Rough
Savarino envisioned converting the newer additions for commercial tenants and demolishing the wood building, which he thought was unsalvageable. But his investment partners at Frontier Development Group and Stark felt the entire complex should be rehabbed for its historic significance and the chance to earn federal and state historic tax credits.

Another reason to preserve the older structure was that Mary Cass, a clerk, had become its general manager in 1909 and grew the firm from a regional to a national company, even before she could vote in a presidential election.

Savarino’s partners’ vision won out, and the developers paid $230,000 in 2012, applied for landmark status, remediated the brownfield, and started rehabilitation in 2013 with a plan to include 97 loft-style apartments, says Savarino. The building was named for its 500 Seneca address, though the apartment section was dubbed Hydraulic Lofts.

The building's immense, three-story, central atrium became a light-filled shared space once greenhouse glass replaced its damaged roof. New, large windows on three sides bring light into the surrounding offices.
Courtesy Savarino Cos. The building's immense, three-story, central atrium became a light-filled shared space once greenhouse glass replaced its damaged roof. New, large windows on three sides bring light into the surrounding offices.

Much to Like
An immense, three-story, central atrium became a light-filled shared space once greenhouse glass replaced its damaged roof. New, large windows on three sides bring light into adjacent offices.

Richard Tedeschi of locally based Jacrist Gardening Services landscaped the atrium with an oversized planter built from reclaimed wood found on the site. He also designed a smaller courtyard garden; turned a fourth-floor rooftop into a green hub with galvanized watering tanks planted with low-maintenance ornamental grasses that would survive the area’s wind and cold; and helped tenants spruce up their balconies.

For Stark, the biggest challenges were replicating unsalvageable windows, replacing rotted floors, and fitting in new mechanical, electric, and plumbing systems. Savarino found it toughest to decide what to leave intact to visually share the building’s history, make old compatible with new, and make the building highly energy efficient. A variable refrigerant flow (VRF) modular system provided the latter solution and also offered flexibility for tenant build-outs, consumed less space, and is less costly to operate.

Tenants signed on quickly. Commercial occupants liked the building’s large floor plates; on-site parking; and proximity to downtown, the interstate, and public bus stops.

Residents, mostly young professionals, leased all the apartments by last January, attracted by the building’s many amenities, from a gym to a restaurant (a second one will open too), dog daycare, wine cellar, and distillery, as well as tenants and activities the Zemskys brought to the renamed Larkinville neighborhood. Food Truck Tuesday weekly brings about 34 trucks that feed 4,000 visitors, from April to October.

A clubroom at 500 Seneca hints at the building's warehouse, turn-of-the-20th-century past, with its exposed-brick walls and Craftsman decor.
Courtesy Savarino Cos. A clubroom at 500 Seneca hints at the building's warehouse, turn-of-the-20th-century past, with its exposed-brick walls and Craftsman decor.

Continued Revival
Altogether, Savarino and his partners spent more than $40 million, with 89% of the office space occupied. Some commercial tenants relocated within Buffalo, such as ABC-Amega, a professional-services firm that handles account receivables and debt collection. It moved to gain more space and parking as well as a new setting to convey a fresh image. “We’re already outgrowing our quarters,” says ABC-Amega CEO David I. Herer.

Savarino is thrilled with the results and even relocated his office to the site. “The building’s become a vibrant place, with more than 500 working and 150 living here,” he says. “What it offers is novel for Buffalo, and property taxes are being used to fund public improvement along Seneca, from Larkinville to downtown.”

The Zemskys, who continue to redevelop the neighborhood with apartments, restaurants, and public space, applaud all the changes. “It’s particularly gratifying to see other developers now investing in the area’s continued revival. There has been great synergy as residents from all of the buildings walk back and forth to enjoy amenities throughout the area,” Leslie says.

500 Seneca: Lessons Learned

1. Light and greenery appeal to people no matter the climate. Despite the perception that Buffalo is always cold and snowy, the city enjoys good weather, too, and many tenants find 500 Seneca’s atrium, terraces, and courtyard a plus. The developers knew this from residents’ love of the Buffalo Botanical Gardens, Frederick Law Olmsted– and Calvert Vaux–designed parks and parkways system, and the annual Garden Walk Buffalo, now the country’s largest residential tour, with more than 400 private gardens on view.

2. Different construction methods and materials require different solutions. Heavy timber structural elements in the original building required removal in some areas, shoring up in others, and occasional replacement with steel columns, says architect Robert E. Stark. For the atrium’s glass roof, 3,314 square feet of new openings were cut in the concrete roof deck to integrate large skylight units. High-efficiency glazing was used because of area temperature extremes. Developer Leslie Zemsky, whose company worked on nearby buildings that acted as a catalyst for 500 Seneca, stresses another construction tip: “Investing in quality construction pays long-term dividends on future maintenance,” she says.

3. Remaining flexible at all stages is key. Leslie and Howard Zemsky did a master plan but were flexible as time passed and their focus evolved. “We adjusted plans along the way as the neighborhood and demand changed. For example, demand shifted from office to apartment space,” Leslie says.

The developer/architecture team for 500 Seneca took a similar path. The plan for the atrium’s floor was changed once the original hardwood was discovered during construction underneath 1 1/2 inches of asphalt. The hardwood was restored. Many tenants also signed on for certain spaces and layouts, and some sought changes, as ABC-Amega did. “We were concerned about old paint and any lead, so Sam agreed to remove it at his company’s expense. We also made changes in our plan— again, at no extra charge,” says ABC-Amega CEO David Herer, who took a 10-year lease with an option to renew. Savarino says he does this to be as accommodating as possible to all tenants, “whether it’s for space planning, how they use a space, and even regarding the business terms. It takes a lot to keep them happy and suit their needs,” he says.

4. Neighborhood connections serve as a valuable guide. Learn the history of your buildings and the neighborhood to guide decisions about preservation and reuse, Leslie Zemsky says. Also, reach out and be helpful and businesses and tenants will likely act favorably toward your projects. “We established a neighborhood improvement fund to give matching grants to homeowners to help fix up the exterior of their homes,” she says.