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Pierce-Arrow plant may get overhauled

A Troy development company wants to turn the former Pierce-Arrow auto manufacturing plant in North Buffalo into a mixed-use complex that includes residences, retail and a hotel.

United Group of Companies unveiled its proposal to overhaul the sprawling, one million-square-foot site, located on Great Arrow Avenue between Elmwood Avenue and Lincoln Parkway, before the Buffalo Planning Board on Tuesday. The project would carry a price tag exceeding $100 million.

Jeffrey R. Smetana, executive vice president of United Development Corp., said the ambitious redevelopment effort would be done in phases, starting with creation of about 250 student-oriented apartments.

He told the planning panel there is demand for off-campus housing in that neighborhood, particularly from nearby Buffalo State College students. Pending approval of its plans, the first phase of reconstruction could begin this fall.

United Group has hired Chaintreuil Jenson Stark Architects of Buffalo to design the project.

Richard M. Tobe, the city's commissioner of economic development, permits and inspections, said he has met with United Group representatives and is encouraged by their interest.

"We've had meetings with them to discuss possible projects. We're encouraged by out-of-town interest in what would be a substantial redevelopment on a site with a lot of local history," Tobe said.

He cautioned, however, that the site has multiple owners, and it will require significant physical investment to convert the century-old structures into modern uses.

"This will be a complicated and expensive project. This is a big one," he said.

James T. Sandoro, director of Buffalo's Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Museum, said he's pleased to hear of plans to give new life to the historic plant.

"That plant is mecca for tens of thousands of people around the world who consider the Pierce-Arrow the greatest car of the 20th century," Sandoro said. "I'd be thrilled to see somebody come in and make into something great for the community."

This will be the first Buffalo project for United Group, whose extensive portfolio includes market rate housing, senior and student housing and commercial development. It was chosen by Niagara County Community College earlier this year to develop about 750 student apartments in three phases.

United's resume of development and management of student housing includes more than 5,000 units of both on- and off-campus living quarters. Among its most recent efforts are new-build student apartments for Finger Lakes Community College in Canandaigua that will debut for the 2007-2008 school year.

The Pierce-Arrow plant, designed by famed industrial architect Albert Kahn, is situated on a 15-acre site that formerly had been part of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. Groundbreaking for the massive car plant took place in early 1906, and the first Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Co. vehicle rolled off the line in January 1907.

In 2001, real estate developer Anthony Kissling announced plans to acquire the site and turn the plant into a major telecommunications center, but those plans never advanced. But the site is far from idle, serving as a home to more than two dozen tenants. The eclectic mix ranges from small medical and design firms to a company that makes squirrel feeders.

The plant's 135,000-square-foot administration building, which faces Elmwood Avenue, was bought by a Brooklyn developer in 2005. Joseph Hecht announced plans to convert the building, designed by Buffalo architect George Cary, to loft apartments, but the conversion has not taken place to date.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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