Panel backs Pittsburgh terminal's historic status

Landmark in Strip targeted for project

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The Strip District's historic produce terminal has survived a first round before the city's Historic Review Commission intact.

In a 3-0 vote, with one abstention, the commission gave preliminary approval Wednesday to the terminal's nomination as a city historic structure.

The decision deals a blow to the plans of the Buncher Co., which wants to demolish 535 feet of the five-block-long terminal on Smallman Street as part of a $400 million residential and office development on the Allegheny riverfront.

If the commission gives final approval to the designation and it is backed by city council, it would make it much harder, although not impossible, for Buncher to follow through with its plans.

Michael E. Kutzer, Buncher's vice president of real estate, said that if the terminal ends up being designated as a historic structure and the western third can't be demolished, it could "possibly" kill the entire redevelopment.

"Financially, the entire facility cannot be renovated. Financially, it's just too much. It creates too many issues and it doesn't create the access to the riverfront that we're trying to accomplish for the rest of the project," he said.

"Keep in mind that the rest of the project will financially support whatever the produce terminal becomes because it's such an expensive project."

Buncher triggered the request by Preservation Pittsburgh, a local preservation group, to get a historic designation for the terminal after the company sought permission from the city in April to demolish part of the Strip District landmark. Buncher wants to raze the western third of the structure to clear a path to extend 17th Street to the Allegheny River as part of an office and residential development.

The company and the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority, which owns the building, are expected to make their case against the designation at a public hearing in September. Buncher has an option to purchase the terminal from the URA for $1.8 million.

George Specter, the URA's general counsel, said the Buncher plan represents the "highest level of preservation" for the terminal because it would ensure that two-thirds of it remain intact. Buncher wants to convert the part of the building that isn't razed into retail and office space.

"This is not a proposed demolition of the whole building. In fact, it's the salvation of the building," he said.

In making its determination, the commission decided that the terminal met four of the requirements for designation -- it represented an architectural type, style or design distinguished by innovation rarity, uniqueness or overall quality of design; it was associated with important cultural or social aspects or events in the city's history; it exemplified a pattern of neighborhood development or settlement; and its unique location or distinctive physical appearance represented an established or familiar visual feature.

Ernie Hogan, the commission's acting chairman, said he voted in favor of the preliminary designation because he believes the terminal, which served for decades as the hub for produce wholesalers, is one of the last standing structures of its kind in the United States.

"What makes it unique is its length, its continuous roof," he said.

The only other that comes close is the French Market in New Orleans, which is longer in length but segmented, he said. It is not one continuous structure like the terminal in Pittsburgh.

Sarah Quinn, the city's historic preservation planner, said the terminal also reflects the core function of the 20th century Strip District as a wholesale distribution center and is associated with the birth of early 20th-century demand for fresh produce year round.

"Basically this terminal building supported the growth of local wholesalers and retailers in the area," she said.

She added that it was distinctive as well. "When you say the produce terminal, everybody knows which building you're talking about," she said.

Michael Shealey, a member of the Preservation Pittsburgh board of directors, said the group was not surprised by the board's decision Wednesday.

"We actually expected that. It's a completely worthy building. We weren't concerned about that," he said.

After the public hearing in September, the commission will take a final vote in October. The proposed designation will then go before the city planning commission for a recommendation. Council will have the final say.

Even if the designation ultimately is approved, Buncher still could come before the historic review panel with a plan to demolish the western third of the terminal, Mr. Hogan said.

"If the plan has merit, demolition could be considered," he said.

But if the commission rejected the plan, Buncher would not be able to move ahead, he said. Commission members are appointed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who supports the Buncher redevelopment.

While proponents of saving the building won an initial round Wednesday, they might not want to become overconfident.

In 2011, the commission, in a 5-1 vote, gave preliminary approval to the Civic Arena's nomination as a city historic structure. Two months later, in a 6-0 vote, it reversed its decision and the arena ultimately was razed to make way for a proposed office, residential and commercial development.

neigh_city - businessnews

Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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