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Buffalo's first families: Making Buffalo better is a family affair

In 1981, one of the earliest advocates for Buffalo’s re-birth, Jake Schneider, recruited five fellow businessmen to form the Buffalo Renaissance Foundation, an organization whose sole purpose was to help revitalize Buffalo and Western New York. In the decades that followed, Schneider has been called “Buffalo’s Renaissance Man” for the work he’s done as a developer and architect to transform many of the city’s structural treasures.

That same year, a young Howard Zemsky moved to Buffalo, rented a studio apartment in a rehabbed Allentown building, and fell in love with the what he calls “the beauty, permanence, and character of Buffalo’s historic buildings.” Thirty-four years later, Zemsky’s passion and successful track record earned him one of the most influential development posts in the state, where he is now working closely with Governor Andrew Cuomo on the Buffalo Billion initiative.

Together with their spouses and grown children, both Schneider and Zemsky have made boosting Buffalo a family affair. These two families’ collective entrepreneurial energy, creative vision and genuine heart have helped breathe new life into some of the city’s most forgotten buildings, and have created an impressive roster of businesses that feed Buffalonians’ intrinsic love of good food, fun, and hometown pride.

The Schneiders: Building Buffalo, one small business at a time

The Schneiders are a close family. Until recently, all six family members had offices within a few yards of each other in the same Art Deco building at 443 Delaware Avenue. Jake, the patriarch of the Schneider clan, runs Schneider Design Architects, PC, a firm his father joined in the ’50s; and Schneider Development, LLC, a company whose first project was its own office building. Both companies are also part of Buffalo Design Collaborative, a cohort of eight independent creative firms that includes studios run by Jake’s wife and oldest son.

An architect by trade, Jake became a developer more than a decade ago because he felt that architects had begun to lose
control over the character of Buffalo’s old buildings, as developers called the shots. By doing both, he can shift the scale in favor of the architect and allow for freedom to create spaces that resonate with people.

“Old architecture defines Buffalo; it evokes emotion,” said Jake. “We have a rich historic fabric that we’ve finally learned to value more in the past few decades, and we’ve gotten better at preserving it.”

Some of the projects Jake has touched include restoring the Kavinoky Theatre, turning forgotten industrial buildings into the Apartments @ The Hub on Swan Street and the historic Warehouse Lofts at 210 Ellicott Street, and designing the Newman Center at UB. Next up is a $10 million adaptive re-use development of a pair of historic buildings on Niagara Street, along a former downtown commercial stretch that’s just beginning to show signs of new life.

Across the hall from Jake’s office is the studio of his wife, Katie, mom to the four Schneider kids. She’s an accomplished photographer whose work focuses on children and architecture, and a community activist who’s involved with the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo, a foundation started by her parents, and Catholic Charities (Jake and Katie chaired this year’s annual appeal together). With two entrances to her office and plenty of chairs, Katie’s workspace is where the rest of the Schneiders go to vent, get a hug, or consult the creative family problem solver, all roles Katie cherishes.

“It’s an honor to have someone you love, and who you know is fairly brilliant, ask your opinion,” said Katie. “And as a mom, it’s easy to keep track of everyone when they’re all here.”

The oldest Schneider kid, Zack, is co-founder of 15 Fingers, a 6-year-old digital marketing and advertising shop whose national roster of clients includes Medaille College, Dearfoams and Ben Garelick Jewelers. Zack is also partner and CEO of Ru’s Pierogi, a company he co-founded in November 2013. For now, their hand-stuffed Polish dumplings are featured at collaborative pop-up events and on a few local pub menus, but they’ll be available for sale to the public when Schneider’s custom-designed 3,000-square-foot production facility opens in summer 2016.

The Schneider girls, Sarah and Eliza, are also looking out for Buffalo’s bellies. The pair opened the restaurant Merge in 2009 on the ground floor of their dad’s building to celebrate community, art, and the benefits of eating beautifully prepared whole foods. While they do serve wild fish and pastured chicken, Merge’s menu was one of the first in the area to offer extensive options for Western New York’s vegetarian and vegan foodies. Eliza offers an increasingly popular raw entrée and juice cleanse series at Merge, and also heads Resolve to Evolve, a health coaching resource for women.

To cater to Buffalo’s growing throng of bicycle enthusiasts, Sarah opened the Handlebar pub in September 2014 inside her dad’s Hub building on Swan Street, a bicycle-centric former grocery warehouse that also includes a bike shop and residential spaces.

According to Zack, talking the youngest Schneider, Max, into coming back to Buffalo was family effort. He finally returned in the summer of 2014 to help dad with his property management company. And in true Schneider fashion, there’s something else in the works: Max is in the early stages of planning a motorcycle collaborative, a clubhouse for local bike geeks that includes winter motorcycle storage, a community workshop with shared tools, maintenance classes, social events and more.

All four Schneider kids credit their parents’ genuine admiration for Buffalo as the reason why they’re all so invested in making this city great. “They heard Katie and I talk a lot about how lucky were are to live here when they were growing up,” said Jake. “But no matter what I accomplish, our kids will be our greatest accomplishment. The fact that they want to invest in their community, in their own ways, makes us proud.”

The Zemskys: Larkinville champions

To the city’s south, another family is working together to make big things happen in Buffalo. Howard Zemsky, who was recently appointed president of the Empire State Development Corporation, is also the guy behind one of Buffalo’s brightest signs of resurgence: The Larkin District. After a 20-year career at Russer Foods, Howard sold the company, created the Larkin Development Group, bought the old Larkin Exchange building and neighboring structures in 2002, and turned them into a vibrant community hub that has since spurred revitalization for blocks in every direction. To many, it may have seemed like a long shot that a forgotten corner of the city would one day draw thousands of city-dwellers, suburbanites, and tourists, but to Howard it made perfect sense.

“I worked in that neighborhood for 20 years with Russer Foods, and I knew it was a stable, working class neighborhood with solid community organizations, low incidence of crime, and great historic buildings and stories,” said Howard. “Larkinville will continue to develop with more residential, commercial, retail, and entertainment on tap, and other developers are helping to accelerate the transformation of the historic district. We’re excited about all of the investment and energy, which is so palpable.”

Although bringing back Larkinville is a great legacy by any measure, Howard’s contributions don’t end there. He also serves as chairman of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, and in the past has served as president of the Board of the Richardson Restoration Corporation, vice chair at Buffalo State College, president of the Binational Tourism Alliance, co-chair of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council and director of the Martin House Corporation, the role that first introduced the Buffalo transplant to the city’s past, Darwin Martin, and the history of the Larkin Soap Company. While his new post at Empire State Development Corporation takes up most of his time these days, there are two other Zemskys hard at work in the Larkin District.

Howard’s wife, Leslie, has what might be one of the coolest job titles in the City of Buffalo. As Director of Fun at Larkinville, she’s the one responsible for making Larkin Square the destination it is through blockbuster events like Food Truck Tuesdays, the Live at Larkin music series on Wednesdays, and other special events that draw people to this unexpected urban oasis. This summer, the new Larkin Links nano-golf course will invite visitors to putt around nine holes, with features designed by local artists.

“It’s a quirky job,” said Leslie. “We’re all about making this place fun, approachable, free, and inviting. And we really had no idea it would take off this way.”

Outside of her post at Larkinville, Leslie serves as board president of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy and board member of Visit Buffalo Niagara. She is also the owner of Rockspring Designs, LLC, where she creates custom illustrations and designs for cards, invitations, and other special print products. One of those products is the intricately drawn wallpaper that graces the walls of Hydraulic Hearth, a restaurant and beer garden located across the street from Larkin Square and owned by Howard and Leslie’s son, Harry.

Harry left the area for college and came back home in 2012 to open a sandwich shop inside an old Airstream trailer in Larkin Square. He helped his mom organize the inaugural Food Truck Tuesday series and shared an office with her at the time. It was there that the idea for Hydraulic Hearth came up. Named for a hydraulic canal that influenced the surrounding area’s street layout in the 1820s, the restaurant has quickly become a gathering space where casual cyclists line up for mass bike rides, guest chefs take over the brick oven or park their food trucks out back in the new beer garden, and imbibe-ophiles sip craft cocktails or brews made in house in the Community Beer Works satellite brewery. Outfitted to a tee with artistic and design help from his mom, Hydraulic Hearth is the first of many family ventures to come.

The Zemskys plan to open a distillery in one of the Larkin buildings this fall, and in 2016 will debut a new restaurant next to Hydraulic Hearth inside a restored 1930s Sterling Company pre-fab diner. As each of her family’s new projects draws all walks of people to the Larkin District, Leslie says she loves hearing other families’ reactions and recollections.

“We hear so many stories about people’s parents and grandparents working down here,” said Leslie. “People say, ‘I’m actually telling my adult kids that they need to come back home and see what’s going on here!’ It’s become a family project that’s creating a family atmosphere for other people to just come down and have fun.”

Families helping families…a grand Buffalo tradition.

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