Closing of North Shore bar called an 'anomaly'

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There was still bottled beer in a big tub of water near the entrance yesterday. Sports highlights played on the TV behind the bar. But for the Hi-Tops sports bar adjacent to PNC Park, time had run out.

The popular North Shore watering hole shut its doors for good Sunday evening, its 51/2-year run coming to a close the same day the Pirates completed another season.

Beset by financial troubles, Hi-Tops had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in March. But with a decision last month to convert the case to a Chapter 7 liquidation, effective Wednesday, its days were numbered.

"It's kind of a sad situation here," said Harold Rothstein, operating consultant for Hi-Tops, located at Federal and General Robinson streets, across from PNC Park.

He blamed the bar's demise on high rent, aggressive creditors and bad baseball. He said the Pirates' chronic losing took its toll.

"The Pirates got a great tradition and we were here for the worst six years in the history of the Pirates and I think that's a big economic factor, too, to try to survive," he said.

Mr. Rothstein said the bar was largely dependent on the sports teams for traffic. He said in early 2006 with the Steelers playing in and winning the Super Bowl, business was good. But last February, with the team out of the playoffs, the bar shut down for the month.

"We went from one extreme to the other," he said.

And while Hi-Tops crowds swelled on Pirates game days, they never were quite as large as they could have been had the team been winning. "On game days, it's great. On non-game days, it's a ghost town," he added.

Robert Lampl, the attorney for Hi-Tops, said the bar agreed to the conversion that resulted in the liquidation because both the landlord, PIA Building LLC, and another major creditor, Banco Popular North America, "really were hostile and aggressive" and didn't seem to be interested in cooperating in a reorganization that would allow the bar to survive."

The bar was paying more than $30,000 a month in rent, which Mr. Lampl said was probably double what the local market would bear. That and the fact the business is "probably productive only 100 days a year" combined to provide "a mixture for failure."

Asked why the Hi-Tops owners agreed to such a high rent, Mr. Lampl replied, "I think there was a general optimism when they started that the North Side development would come along quicker than it did" and that the stadiums would be the "precipitating cause" of foot traffic.

Mr. Rothstein said the bar had tried to renegotiate the rent and even offered to buy the building at one point, all to no avail. The closing will affect about 65 employees.

An attorney for Banco Popular declined comment. An attorney for PIA Building could not be reached for comment.

As Hi-Tops abruptly shut down, leaving lunchtime visitors to wonder what happened, other bars and restaurants near PNC Park reported better results.

At Bubba's Ugly North Shore Bar and Grille adjacent to Hi-Tops, owner Bubba Snider said he is pleased with business. After struggling the first year, business has picked up as more development has taken place near the stadiums.

Mr. Snider, who opened Bubba's nearly two years ago, believes the North Shore is becoming a trendier place to party. "With the reputation of the Strip District and the overcrowding on the South Side, the North Shore is a destination now," he said.

Mike Stiltner, bar manager of Firewater's North Shore Saloon across the street from Hi-Tops, described business as "OK." Traffic does slow down after the Pirates season, he said, but Firewater's hopes to do more marketing to attract business through the winter months.

"That's the problem in this part of town. Everybody thinks that after the Pirates are gone that we're closed. We're open all year long," he said.

Michael Van Thiel, executive director and co-owner of SoHo at 203 Federal St. across from PNC Park, said the restaurant's business has been increasing steadily in the 18 months it has been open.

He described Hi-Tops' closing as an "anomaly."

"Our business is great. We're still growing," he said.

At Atria's Restaurant & Tavern, located at PNC Park, partner Jack "Johnny Angel" Hunt had no complaints about business. He said the restaurant had a record week last week.

Even on non-game days, the restaurant generates a "pretty steady crowd" from nearby offices, residences and Downtown.

"It think [business is] growing. I really believe we as a city have finally succeeded in saying it's OK to go across the bridge, which has always been a phobia of Pittsburghers," he said.

Mr. Hunt said the opening of several restaurants in the DelMonte and Equitable Resources office buildings on the North Shore hasn't had much of an impact on his business.

"We've maintained our steady guests and picked up some new clientele. I think it's healthy for us. It brings people who may not have come to the North Shore because there are a lot of options."

Mark Belko can be reached at or 412-263-1262.


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