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$60 million project aims to transform East Side industrial wasteland

The vast former Niagara Machine & Tool Works factory casts a huge shadow on Northland Avenue.

Inside its hulking interior, black oil-soaked wood blocks, some buckled into mounds, cover most of the dirt subfloor. Puddles of rainwater collect below gaps in the roof, while broken glass litters the ground. Rusty yellow cranes sit overhead on tracks, their unused hooks dangling free. Silver control boxes hang in the damp air. And aging equipment lingers in place – including an old grinding wheel with its cover peeling.

Built a century ago for a company that no longer exists, it’s a structure whose time came and went.

Now, though, it’s about to gain new life. A $60 million effort to turn the Northland Avenue Belt Line Corridor into a new light industrial and manufacturing hub is underway after more than two years of preparation.

[Gallery: The Former Clearing-Niagara Factory and the Northland Corridor Redevelopment Project]

The Buffalo Urban Development Corp., chaired by Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, is working to redevelop more than a dozen properties and 35 acres of East Side land that has sat underused or vacant for decades, creating new space for businesses and training to benefit a languishing part of the city. The goal is to bring new investment and jobs to impoverished neighborhoods as part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative.

The centerpiece of the entire zone will be the Western New York Workforce Training Center, which will operate as a joint venture of Alfred State College, Erie Community College and SUNY Buffalo State to provide vocational skills in manufacturing fields. Slated to open by September 2018, it will train residents to work in advanced manufacturing jobs and will operate alongside Buffalo Manufacturing Works, which supports small manufacturers that are testing or exploring new equipment and technology in a bid to improve their own operations.

Water pools on the floor from a leaking roof of the Clearing Niagara factory. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Demolition is already underway at 537 East Delavan Ave., while Gilbane Building Co. will begin overseeing cleanup and construction work at 683 Northland Ave., this month. The rest of the buildings and land will be either renovated and leased out to companies, or demolished if they are in such poor condition that they can’t be saved. The land will then be cleaned and cleared, so that it can be turned over for construction of new facilities in the future. A total of 17 acres of shovel-ready land could be available. The project will also include parkland, auxiliary services and food, and infill housing near existing neighborhoods.

Additionally, the city is investing in streetscape improvements along Northland Avenue. And National Grid and National Fuel Gas Co. are putting in new pipes and utility poles to improve service to the neighborhood.

“People are just thrilled to see this activity. It’s all positive,” said BUDC President Peter Cammarata.

Here's a look at the properties and how they will be used:

The Houdaille building on Northland Avenue in Buffalo. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

1. 537 East Delavan Ave.

What it was: Formerly used by Houdaille Industries to make shock absorbers for cars and then trains, the building has long been vacant. BUDC acquired the building in December 2014 for $250,000, as its first Northland Corridor purchase. Much of the complex is in bad shape, and the central portion – known as the Western Plant Area – is being demolished with $4 million in city funds and then will be cleaned up by the state Department of Environmental Conservation as a Superfund site. About 40 percent of the demolition work is complete.

What it will be: The demolition will leave about seven acres of cleared land for redevelopment. On the north side, the brown etched-brick administrative office will be saved as per State Historic Preservation Office directives, along with the Eastern Plant Area, which was the last part that Houdaille built. On the south side, BUDC will keep the former heat treating area building for a 15,000-square-foot small business center for neighborhood companies. BUDC will also keep the dock area, which is now leased as storage by Harvey Washington’s WNY Mortgage Field Services, as well as a nearby power house and a chimney.

664 Northland Ave. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

2. 644, 664, 688 and 690 Northland

What it was: Parking lots along Northland Avenue, but as well as fenced-in greenspace farther back.

What it will be: The front will remain parking, but BUDC will offer the rear portions for sale to be converted into single-family lots for infill housing. An electric substation will also be upgraded.

An artist rendering of a park planned for 577 Northland Ave.

3. 577 Northland Ave.

What it was: A triangular corner lot with two dilapidated buildings that will be demolished. BUDC bought the property for $1, but will spend $70,000 on demolition and cleanup.

What it will be: The land will be turned into a park and main gateway to the Northland Belt Line area, at the corner of Northland and Fillmore avenues. The agency is also seeking to buy adjacent properties at 1669 and 1681 Fillmore Ave., where aging buildings will be torn down for a larger gateway area. BUDC also plans gateway “treatments” at the corners of Winchester and East Delavan avenues and at Grider and Northland avenues.

(Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

4. 631 Northland Ave.

What it was: The 40,000-square-foot single-story former welding shop building was part of the Niagara Machine complex. It has 40-foot ceilings, but needs roof and perimeter work once BUDC finds funding.

What it will be: It will be made available for lease, likely to a single large user. A couple of smaller structures immediately to the west will be demolished.

Exterior of the former Clearing Niagara factory on Northland Ave. in Buffalo. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

5. 683 Northland Ave.

What it was: Built in 1911 for Niagara Machine & Tool Works, the complex was later expanded to include 235,000 square feet. Niagara Machine – which at its peak employed about 3,000 people making sheet-metal cutting and forming equipment for the auto industry – later gave way to Clearing Niagara, which added the final portion of the building in 1981. Manufacturing operations ceased in the 1980s, but many of the cranes and other equipment remain – including a rare 200-ton box crane.

What it will be: The building will house the Western New York Workforce Training Center, a Buffalo Billion-funded facility that will occupy 90,000 square feet. It will include five classrooms and seven training or lab areas, with large windows and sawtooth roof skylights to provide significant natural light. Parking and a student entrance will be located on the northwest side of the building, with a cafe and patio seating area on the northeast side on Northland.

A second tenant will be Buffalo Manufacturing Works, a research and training operation that will move from Main Street to occupy up to 45,000 square feet of the former Niagara Machine building. The facility, which may use a 50-ton box crane that still remains, helps small manufacturers learn how to improve their own operations, including with new technology.

The building also will have 55,000 square feet of common areas, 40,000 square feet of divisible space for lease in a high-bay structure on the east side, 10,000 square feet for lease on the western side, 20,000 square feet for lease on the top two floors and 8,000 square feet of mezzanine space for lease.

741 Northland Ave. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

6. 741, 767 and 777 Northland Ave.

What it was: Originally part of the Otis Elevator complex and later used by Curtiss Wright during World War II, the building at 741 Northland Ave. was most recently part of Niagara Machine. Next door, 777 Northland Ave. was also part of the Otis Elevator complex, along with a small piece at 767 Northland that was recently owned by Hard Manufacturing.

What it will be: The building at 741 Northland will be renovated, except for two slender that have already collapsed and will be demolished. An adjacent water tower will also be saved. The building at 777 Northland Ave. will be mostly demolished with Restore New York money, but a portion with 2.5 bays, will be saved, as will the historic “knee wall” along the base.

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