More changes in the works for the Strip District

It’s the site of a former produce warehouse, it’s in the Strip District, and it could signal another wave of residential and retail development in the neighborhood.

Sound familiar? Only this is not the Pennsylvania Fruit Auction and Sales Building, the Strip landmark that has been the subject of endless controversy for more than a year.

The proposed new development is across Smallman Street on a warehouse site that once housed Tom Ayoob Inc., a produce wholesaler. The land is now owned by Rugby Realty, the New Rochelle, N.Y., real estate company that owns a number of properties in Pittsburgh, including the Gulf, Koppers, and Frick buildings in Downtown.

Rugby is in the process of razing the warehouse and a second building once occupied by the old Pittsburgh Banana Co., with the goal of converting the site and the former Benkovitz Seafood restaurant building next to it into a mixed-use development.

The company acquired the Benkovitz property two years ago for $1.16 million. It paid $950,000 for the Ayoob site in 2006.

While the proposed demolition of a third of the neighboring 1,533-foot-long produce terminal by the Buncher Co. created a political firestorm, the razing of the much smaller, less significant Ayoob building across the street has gone largely unnoticed.

Aaron Stauber, Rugby’s president, said he decided to tear down the structure because it was in “really poor condition” after the Ayoob company left in May.

“There was no way to salvage what was there, because it was in a state of disrepair,” he said.

Becky Rodgers, executive director of Neighbors in the Strip, said she had no problem with the decision.

“Whenever a building goes down, I have concerns. But from what I understand about the condition of that building, I think it was unsafe,” she said.

Between the Ayoob and Benkovitz properties, about 3.5 acres of land will be available for redevelopment. Mr. Stauber envisions a mixed-use retail and residential development and possibly a hotel on the site.

Rugby, he said, has received unsolicited calls from entities interested in building a hotel on the property.

“To me, the most realistic, I would say, would be retail with a residential component, possibly a hotel,” he said. “Right now I don’t envision office.”

Nonetheless, Rugby is in no hurry to redevelop.

One reason is that 4moms, a Strip District company that develops and manufactures high-tech baby gear, is leasing space in the Benkovitz property and an adjacent warehouse. Mr. Stauber said that lease has at least another couple of years to run.

Rugby also has been waiting to see what type of redevelopment emerges from the produce terminal.

Two developers — Ferchill Group of Cleveland and McCaffery Interests of Chicago — are pitching largely residential projects for the terminal, while Rubino Partners is planning to turn it into a marketplace anchored by vendors specializing in closeout merchandise. Buncher is proposing office and retail uses to complement a $450 million residential and office development planned for the Allegheny riverfront.

Once Rugby clears the Ayoob site, it probably will use the land for parking in the short term. Mr. Stauber said the company already has been approached by entities interested in using the property for that purpose.

He said parking will get even tighter than it is now in the Strip as more redevelopment takes place, both on the Buncher site and elsewhere in the Strip.

“It’s going to be worse way before it gets better,” he said. “Parking is definitely an issue.”

Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262.

Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262.

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