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What now for vacant American Axle plant? Available: 1.2 million square feet of industrial and office space in the heartof the city

The closing of American Axle & Manufacturing's East Delavan Avenue manufacturing plant leaves a sprawling piece of property to fill.

The question now facing the auto parts supplier, as well as the East Side neighborhood in which it sits: Who will buy the 1.2 million-square-foot complex, and what might it be used for?

American Axle formally closed the East Side manufacturing plant after a new labor contract was recently approved. But the site's fate has been known for some time. American Axle "idled" it late last year, halting production and operating it with a small work force since then.

In recent years, the plant employed more than 2,000 people, churned out axles mainly for General Motors, and was a neighborhood anchor. Its closing dealt a blow to the region's base of high-wage jobs, and has created a secondary effect in the form of vacant space.

Renee Rogers, an American Axle spokeswoman, said the company is putting the plant up for sale but said she did not have details about how it is being marketed.

A real estate survey published earlier this year by CB Richard Ellis' Buffalo office counted the complex as vacant, before it was officially closed. The American Axle site was a key reason the region's amount of vacant industrial space increased by 725,000 square feet from the year before, the annual survey said.

Commercial real estate specialists interviewed said they doubt a single user will be found to absorb all of the plant's space. More likely, they say, the property will be bought and divided up for multiple tenants. And filling such a large amount of space could take a few years, they said.

Some parts of the American Axle complex were built decades ago. The plant is located near an expressway, but is tucked into a neighborhood, instead of inside a business park. It will also have to compete with newer, smaller space on the market for users.

The city assessor's office says the East Delavan site site has a total value of $2.9 million, including land value of $486,000. A two-day auction at the plant last week sold off surplus equipment, tools and supplies. The facility itself was not included in the auction.

The shutdown has also raised neighborhood concerns about whether the complex will be well maintained, now that it is closed.

"If it gets run down, that's going to affect us first and foremost," said Martha Moore-Morris, president of the East Delavan Block Club.

The company has done a good job maintaining the plant and its grounds, cutting the grass and keeping the parking lots clean, Moore-Morris said. "My concern is they won't continue to keep it up if they're not receiving income from the place," she said.

Asked about her concerns, American Axle said that it keeps up the facilities it owns and doesn't expect that to change.

Moore-Morris said she is also worried about the impact the loss of the operation will have on nearby businesses and employment. "That place has always carried the neighborhood," she said.

Inside the vast East Delavan plant, silence has replaced the sound of machines cranking out axles. Posters about worker safety and job notices still hang on the walls, echoes of a manufacturing history that began 85 years ago.

The plant was started in 1923 by GM as Chevrolet assembly plant, then consisting of 400,000 square feet. A 5-passenger Chevrolet sedan called a Superior was the first vehicle made there, according to a history compiled by American Axle.

During World War II, the plant converted to making parts for aircraft engines. After the war, it switched from assembling vehicles to making auto components.

The plant again played a role in supplying parts to the military during the Korean War. In ensuing years, the site was expanded.

American Axle bought the site, along with some other GM locations, in 1994. The new owner subsequently added a paint facility and poured much-needed investment dollars into a plant that had been considered in danger of closing.

The plant's presence has altered the neighborhood. Buildings across the street were demolished to make way for more parking. The opening of William L. Gaiter Parkway in the late 1990s allowed for easier access to the plant from the Kensington Expressway.

With American Axle's operation on East Delavan finished, what might take its place?

Steve Blake, vice president and partner at CB Richard Ellis-Buffalo, said the site represents an enormous amount of industrial space for the local market to absorb. And that type of space has been slow to fill up lately, not just in Western New York, he said.

Demand for industrial space of more than 100,000 square feet "has been quiet for industrial users in our market for well over a year," he said.

James Militello of J.R. Militello Real Estate said he believes the most likely scenario is a developer buying the property and making it suitable for multiple tenants. "I don't see another manufacturer wanting to come in and take 1.2 million [square feet]," he said.

"The good news is there are a lot of really good, quality developers in this market," Militello added.

Some other former manufacturing plants have succeeded in finding new uses, he said. A former engine plant on Grider Street now houses a Sodexo laundry. The former Worthington Compressor factory on Roberts Avenue was turned into the Worthington Business Center.

Paving the way for reuse of the closed American Axle plant will depend in part on the price and terms of sale the company is willing to accept, he said.

"It's all in the economics," Militello said. "That building will be put back into use, it will be paying taxes."

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com

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