North Shore Story: a real estate rumble!

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The plot thinnens.

The Steelers development group has threatened to sue the guy who wants to buy the same three-acre slice of the North Side it covets, but its legal argument looks tissue-thin.

The top man at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney penned a letter that essentially says nobody has the right to say out loud how much he thinks this land is worth or what he might do with it.

Merrill Stabile, Pittsburgh's parking king, is the man accused of the transgression. Mr. Stabile has offered $10 million for a piece of land between the stadiums that the Steelers/Pirates development group has an option to buy for $1.3 million. On Friday, he announced a real-estate partner to build a "signature office tower" on the spot.

John Barbour, CEO and managing director of the big law firm, sent Mr. Stabile a missive last week telling him thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's parking lot because, in this case, that's "tortious interference with existing and prospective contractual relationships.''

That might be a greater stretch than the one Santonio Holmes made to win Super Bowl XLIII.

Mr. Barbour's letter tells Mr. Stabile what he already knows, that the sports teams' North Shore Developers L.P. has an option agreement that "inter alia'' ("among other things") includes this parcel of land just east of the Stage AE amphitheater. (Just as the NFL loves those ostentatious Roman numerals, lawyers love to lean on Latin.) So Mr. Stabile needs to butt out or be sued, the letter concludes, using way more syllables.

Mr. Stabile laughs off the threat, with good reason. Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University, says tortious interference occurs only when a person intentionally damages a contractual or business relationship.

Nobody's asking anyone to break a contract here. All the Steelers development group has to do is what it promised to do under its deal, Mr. Ledewitz said.

This is getting interesting because the Steelers, Pirates and their development partner, Continental Real Estate Cos., evidently face a deadline this week that requires them to move ahead on an optioned parcel. Twice in the past year, the city Stadium Authority has effectively extended the development deadline.

So all Mr. Stabile seems to be saying with his offer -- seven and half times larger than North Shore Developers' -- is "think of us in a week,'' Mr. Ledewitz said.

The authority can't break its deal, but it doesn't have to extend it if the deadline isn't met. Any credible development plan that reaps more for taxpayers has to be considered.

The Steelers group is certainly right to assert that it has "invested tens of millions of dollars in successfully developing numerous parcels of land on the North Shore ... which have taken place in less-than-optimal financial times." Frank Kass, Continental's chairman, put the number at $130 million-plus last week, which has resulted in two office buildings, a string of bar/restaurants, a hotel and the amphitheater.

Nobody should scoff at that; this development has transformed an area that, during the three-decade Three Rivers Stadium era, was lifeless. Now the riverfront is alive with diners, concert-goers, cyclists, walkers and runners, even when there's no game.

But that vaunted private investment is still a fraction of the $1 billion-plus of public investment in stadiums, the convention center, the riverfront park, roads, the parking garage and the North Shore Connector. So implications in Mr. Barbour's letter that North Shore Developers made genuine sacrifices amount to light comedy.

Yes, "the Steelers agreed to forego their pursuit of a $4 million development grant'' for the amphitheater so the authority could use it to build a 1,300-space parking garage. But the reason for that garage is so that Steelers and Pirates fans have a place to park their cars: The teams are building all this stuff, designed for further wallet-lightening, in former parking lots.

That the state later turned around and gave North Shore Developers $2.5 million for its amphitheater escapes Mr. Barbour's mention. That's a genuine shame, and leaves us still wondering about the Latin phrase for "sweetheart deal.''


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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