Pittsburgh planning commission recommends historic designation for Strip District produce terminal

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City planning commission members have come down in favor of a historic designation for the produce terminal in Pittsburgh's Strip District, but they weren't all that happy about it.

The commission voted 7-1 Tuesday to recommend that the terminal, a Strip landmark, be designated as a city historic structure, a decision that would make it tougher to alter or demolish the building.

Members took the action even though they generally were supportive of plans by the Buncher Co. to raze about one-third of the building and redevelop the rest as part of its $450 million Riverfront Landing residential and office project. The commission had backed the creation of a specially planned district for the development last year.

Nonetheless, they said the terminal, opened in 1929, met four of the criteria for the city historic designation and that they felt obligated by law to recommend its approval. But the decision was a source of angst for some of them.

"It should not be lost on anyone that Buncher has tried for a very long time to take a lot of considerations and make them work -- access to the river, riverfront trails, lots of shopping -- but I just don't think that I here can say it's not historic, because it is," member Kirk Burkley said.

Commission member Todd Reidbord, whose company redeveloped the former Nabisco factory in the East End, chastised Preservation Pittsburgh for "coming in at the 11th hour" to nominate the building for the designation.

"That's not the right way to do it. I don't think any of us appreciate that. It puts everybody in a very difficult position," he said.

Chairwoman Wrenna Watson, who cast the only no vote, decried what she called "back-dooring a developer" by nominating a building for a designation at the last minute to thwart a developer's plans and suggested that the law be changed to prevent that.

"This is unfair to this developer to come in at the last minute and say, OK now we want you to be historical, which changes every plan that they've made at this point -- with time, money, not just the developer's money, the city's investment and time and money," she said.

"I'm not in favor of it, not because I don't think it's a historic building. I love the building. I love the Strip District. I think what they've done to show us that they are actually preserving the building and chopping off a little portion of it, I think they're doing an excellent job in preserving the building."

But Peter Margittai, Preservation Pittsburgh president, called such comments "unwarranted." He said advocates were asking for the preservation of the structure as far back as two years ago.

They did not believe the terminal was "at risk" until Buncher filed for permit last spring to demolish the western third of it, he said. "We felt we had to take action immediately. Otherwise we might lose the opportunity," he explained.

Mr. Margittai said the issue is not so much what should be done with the building but in ensuring that those interested in preserving its historic qualities will have a say and "not leave that just to the developer to make those final decisions."

The designation would make it much more difficult, though not impossible, for Buncher to demolish part of the building. The company would have to convince the city's historic review commission, which already has voted in favor of the designation, of the need to do so. One of the building's key defining features is its 1,533-foot length.

Buncher is seeking to raze 529 feet of the structure so that it can extend 17th Street to the Allegheny River. It also has pledged to spend up to $22 million to turn the rest of the building, once the hub for produce wholesalers but now nearly vacant, into offices and restaurants.

Company officials have argued that the building itself is obsolete, decaying, and in need of major repairs and that their plan offers the best chance of preserving it. They also said they have studied other alternatives -- such as "cut throughs" or tunnels through the building, as some have proposed -- and found them to be impractical or too costly.

In arguing for the designation, Mr. Margittai said his group was not trying to "throw up roadblocks" but simply wanted a thorough review of potential options and that the city's HRC was the best vehicle for that.

"[Preservation Pittsburgh rejects] that the extremely important decision of how to best re-purpose the one structure which was most responsible for giving birth to the Strip District as we know and love it today should be trusted solely in the hands of the developer," he said, "particularly one who has characterized this building simply as a loss leader."

Buncher officials declined comment on the commission's vote. Tom Balestrieri, Buncher president, previously said the company's plans were "in limbo" until a final decision was made on the designation.

The planning commission and HRC recommendations now go before city council, which will have the final say on the designation.

Councilman Bill Peduto, Democratic nominee for mayor and the heavy favorite in next month's election, has said he is looking for a "third way" to do the development that could involve "decoupling" the terminal from the rest of the project and finding a way to provide riverfront access without demolishing part of it.

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Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262. First Published October 15, 2013 12:12 PM


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