Frey the Wheelman is about to get a $5 million makeover.
Uniland Development Co. wants to turn the industrial properties on Ellicott Street into a new “innovation hub” for one or more technology companies, a stone’s throw from the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
The goal is to create a relaxed atmosphere that encourages the growth of sophisticated but youthful firms, in an environment geared to collaboration, “where people can gather and bounce ideas off, but in a comfortable way,” said Uniland Vice President Michael J. Montante.
That’s akin to what is found at Google, Yahoo or other high-tech companies.
“We want people who come to work to feel comfortable biking or walking to work, showing up in their shorts,” Montante said. “What we’re trying to create here is an environment that’s very different.”
The Amherst-based commercial real estate developer said it has signed a contract to purchase three parcels owned by Frey Heavy Duty, a distributor of heavy-duty truck and trailer parts that operates as Frey the Wheelman. The purchase is expected to close in mid-July for about $2 million.
The properties consist of a 20,000-square-foot warehouse building at 505 Ellicott St., a parking lot with 46 spaces just to the north and an L-shaped building at 41 E. Tupper St., with about 15,000 square feet of space where Frey has its main operations locally.
The primary focus initially will be on redeveloping 505 Ellicott and improving the accompanying parking lot, which are separated by the Ellicott Small Animal Hospital in between. The warehouse is “very underutilized,” Montante said, with Frey using a portion of it but otherwise leasing out the space to other organizations or businesses for temporary storage.
“Right now, it’s a block warehouse,” Montante said, citing vintage cars and millwork for Buffalo General Medical Center among the items he has seen there. “We want to transform it into a cool place to work.”
Plans call for preserving the white block facade but cleaning it and adding red accent stripes. It will also include “green wall” elements, such as ivy or other plants taking up sections of the outer and interior walls in well-defined sections. Uniland will seek LEED certification.
The building has only two load-bearing columns, so the interior is clear, allowing for a completely open floor plan without “hard” offices, Montante said. Uniland plans to leave the pipes, joists and duct work exposed, and will put in skylights for natural daytime lighting.
Also, the building’s height would allow Uniland to put in a mezzanine or loft level, for a two-story open space totaling up to 36,000 square feet.
Uniland is in discussions with a couple of potential local users that could each take up the entire facility. No lease has been signed, and Montante would not identify or describe those firms, except to say they fit with the vision. One is locally owned, while the other has outside investors. The facility also could be divided for multiple tenants.
Plans call for development work to begin by fall. The other building will be done later.
“It’s going from an industrial, mechanical and maintenance use to something that is more appropriate for a vibrant part of the city,” Montante said.
Frey sells wheels, struts, shocks and other parts for heavy vehicles, such as school buses, trucks and construction equipment. It also provides repair services. It has operations in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Elmira and Watertown. The business was incorporated in 1907 and has occupied the downtown facilities since at least the 1940s, according to general manager Rob Jones. But “it’s not a great location for us anymore, because we don’t have a customer base in this immediate area,” he said.
The properties have been on the market for years, with no takers until now. “They’ve been on the market forever. Every broker in town has had their sign on it,” Montante said.
What attracted Uniland to the property is a combination of factors converging at the same time, Montante said. That includes the rapid and explosive growth of the nearby Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, which is expected to have as many as 20,000 employees in a few years. There’s also other development activity on Ellicott and nearby streets, including the Genesee Gateway and projects by Rocco Termini. Conversions of aging buildings into market-rate apartments have done well, as have new restaurants, and other initiatives are either in process or on the drawing board.
Car traffic is returning to Main Street, two blocks west. And one block to the east, at the north end of the Elm-Oak Arterial, Uniland is building a new headquarters and training facility for Catholic Health System, which is consolidating from several sites and bringing 700 jobs to downtown Buffalo.
As for Frey, which employs 10 in Buffalo, it wants to relocate by year-end to “a more suitable space” and is looking at a couple of possibilities, Jones said. “I’m excited to see the properties down here being used for something that fits more into the development of the city,” he said. “It’s an exciting location for the right business to be in. I’m sure it’s going to work out well for everybody.”