SouthSide Works leader has exited

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SouthSide Works will be moving into a new phase in its development without the man most responsible for making it into one of the region's top restaurant and entertainment destinations.

Damian Soffer, the former president and CEO of the Soffer Organization credited with luring the Cheesecake Factory, trendy retailers and the headquarters of American Eagle Outfitters to the city brownfield, is "no longer active in the management of the company," said Alfred C. Maiello, general counsel for Soffer.

Mr. Maiello said that Mr. Soffer's last day with the company was Nov. 30, but he would not discuss specifics surrounding his departure.

"As I said, there were issues. Those issues were resolved and he elected to remove himself from management and pursue other endeavors," he said.

Mr. Soffer could not be reached for comment. A woman who answered the phone at his Fox Chapel home said "I don't think he has a comment." Mr. Soffer's attorney, Edward Friedman, declined to comment.

Mr. Maiello said Mr. Soffer's mother, Violet, is now in charge of the organization.

In a 2005 interview, Mr. Soffer traced his inspiration for the South Side riverfront complex, a former steel mill, to the 14 years he spent in Europe after studying business at the University of Denver. He envisioned an old-style European layout in which visitors could shop, work, eat and live, all within walking distance.

After learning of Mr. Soffer's departure Thursday, former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy described him as a "real visionary" who helped to shape the 34-acre SouthSide Works site into a development that has received national accolades.

While Mr. Soffer's departure marks an end of an era for SouthSide Works, company officials are looking to take the complex into a new phase of development, with plans for more than 200 new apartment units, a new restaurant, and the completion of a riverfront park.

Thomas M. Despres, chief financial officer for Soffer, said the firm has resolved all issues related to a default last September on $49.6 million owed on four SouthSide Works buildings on East Carson Street.

Mr. Despres said the default was a "very strategic" maneuver to allow Soffer to restructure the loan in anticipation of the sale of the Quantum One office building to UPMC for $25 million last fall.

"It was not brought on by any monetary or maturity default. It was just something we needed to do in order to make the sale of the UPMC property make sense, financially and strategically," for Soffer, he said. "Within a couple of months everything was resolved. We're no longer in default. The mortgage is fine."

The proposed apartment complex would be located at Sidney and 26th streets. It only became possible last year after the city Urban Redevelopment Authority reached a $500,000 settlement with Nationwide Realty Investors over a long-standing restriction that had prevented apartments from being built at SouthSide Works.

Mr. Maiello said Soffer is in discussions with a large Midwestern apartment company about developing the complex. Like other SouthSide Works office and residential buildings, it would feature street-level retail.

The URA board last week hired a consultant to study a possible fifth parking garage at SouthSide Works. Mr. Maiello said the garage is "kind of a keystone" in the development of the apartment complex. No timetable has been established for the start of the project.

Soffer has reached a deal with Miller's Ale House, a Florida-based chain, to occupy a riverfront spot previously reserved for Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill.

The casual-dining restaurant should be under construction this summer, with an expected opening in spring 2014. The 11,000-square-foot eatery will have seating for 460 inside as well as an outdoor patio that will connect directly to the riverfront trail.

As with other shopping developments, the recession took its toll on retailers at SouthSide Works, which lost Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Ann Taylor Loft, Z Gallerie, and other retailers over several years.

Mr. Despres said that at its low point before LA Fitness arrived in 2011, SouthSide Works probably had a retail occupancy percentage in the high 70s. It has since bounced back to 88 to 89 percent.

Two new stores, Sincerely Yogurt and Muscle Maker Grill, are expected to open this spring or summer.

"We feel that our retail has held its own," Mr. Despres said. "We have some spaces that we struggle with but so does everybody else."

Soffer officials are expecting SouthSide Works to get a boost when the Hyatt House Hotel opens this spring. That will be followed by the completion of a riverfront park in June that will allow visitors to follow a piazza from the Monongahela River to the complex.

Mr. Maiello said it all bodes well for the $300 million complex, now more than a decade old.

"We're moving out of that malaise most developers were in. We're moving out of it quite nicely. We have further development to do at SouthSide Works here," he said.

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Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262.


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