Cravings: Can Strip District's historic produce terminal start fresh?

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By Amy McConnell Schaarsmith, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Poke your head into one of the open bays in the Strip District's Pennsylvania Railroad Fruit Auction Building sometime during your lunch hour. You're likely to feel as if you've stepped back into the days when the produce terminal, all five city blocks of it, was still the heart of the city's shipping center.

Last week, dusty sunlight streamed down, cathedral-like, from the building's high windows onto bag after 50-pound bag of sweet onions, their earthy scent rising and mingling with the odor of damp cement and the diesel smell of tractor-trailers. Wooden pallets lay stacked along the wall next to boxes of lettuce, broccoli, limes, strawberries, beans and cantaloupes.

The floor was calm in the daylight; all the action, all the loading and haggling and money-making, happened hours ago, between midnight and 7 a.m., much as it always has.

What has changed, dramatically changed, is the scale of activity at the terminal. Where 40 families once sold wholesale produce out of the terminal building in the late 1940s, just five now remain in business, and the local farmers who once sold fruit and vegetables to the public in front of the terminal's loading docks on Smallman Street have disappeared.

"The families drifted away," said Billy Carson, a manager for Coosemans Produce who has sold wholesale fruit and vegetables at the terminal since 1948. "The demand for us no longer existed in the same way."

Now the grand old auction house and produce terminal may have reached an even more dire point in its 80-year history, as a local community group and a developer seek to overhaul -- and in the developer's case, partially demolish -- a building owned by the city's publicly supported Urban Redevelopment Authority and therefore by you and me, the taxpayers.

The Buncher Co., which owns a about 12 acres between the terminal and the riverfront that it would like to develop, has been discussing plans to extend at least one cross street -- possibly 18th Street -- through the building and back to its property, cutting the long building into sections, according to Buncher's general counsel, Joseph Jackovic. The company's riverfront property is accessible only by 16th and 21st streets, on either end of the produce terminal.

"It's an issue we think the city ought to address because it is a barrier to development," Jackovic said. "They always talk about connecting the neighborhoods to the riverfront -- that's one of the barriers to connecting them."

The URA's executive director, Jerry Dettore, said no decision has been made on whether to cut a street -- or streets -- through the building, but that something needs to be done to make the Buncher property more accessible.

"The question here is how you open the area behind the terminal so more development can occur -- do you have to extend the streets and separate the building?" Dettore said. "Maybe a new building that's more technologically advanced can be built on the Buncher property for [the produce wholesalers]."

Such talk, though, has the building's tenants buzzing -- and none too happy about the prospect of Buncher and the URA partially demolishing a building that, although it lacks official designation as a historic site, is nevertheless a local landmark.

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
A view of the produce terminal along Smallman Street in the Strip District, where local farmers once sold fruit and vegetables to the public. Part of the Downtown skyline is in the background.
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture
Early morning at the Pennsylvania Railroad Fruit Auction Building in the Strip District, 1946. The building, where wholesale produce and some retail goods are still sold today, is at the center of plans to create a new marketplace for local farmers, artisans and other businesses -- but it also stands in the way of a developer's plans for land behind the building.
Click photo for larger image.Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Produce stacked up inside the produce terminal in the Strip District. One idea for the massive building is to use vacant portion of it for a marketplace.
Click photo for larger image.

"If it's a landmark and you cut it into pieces, how is that a landmark anymore?" said Del Lansing, owner of Triangle Homebrewing Supply.

The building's shape -- and in particular its length -- is what makes it marvellous and unique, said Arthur Ziegler, president of the nonprofit Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

"That building is impressive because of its continuous sweep along Smallman Street," Mr. Ziegler said. "It's really a marvelous building, and I can't think of another building in the city like that -- it helps define the Strip."

Meanwhile, the community group, Neighbors in the Strip, has a vision of remaking a 25,000-square-foot, vacant portion of the warehouse into a smaller version of the country's successful historic markets, such as West Side Market in Cleveland, Findley Market in Cincinnati and Pike Place Market in Seattle.

Their proposed market, which would include about 50 vendors (who have yet to be recruited), would open Thursday through Sunday and would combine stalls for produce, pottery, wood carvings, metalwork, African textiles, prepared food and other goods with a stage for live entertainment.

Architectural drawings of the proposed marketplace (and photographs of Reading Terminal in Philadelphia, a potential model) in the group's promotional materials show a mall-like penchant for scrubbed and painted surfaces, glass display cases and faux-historic signs.

The group, which announced its plan in July, has yet to raise any private donations, however. For now, it is using a $150,000 state grant to pay for reworking its original feasibility study, which was based on creating a much larger market -- a proposal that's not feasible in a building with just 25,000 square feet lying vacant.

In the original study released last year, the community group would have rented the space from the URA and then re-rented it to the vendors. And although "those numbers are pretty much out the window," according to the group's economic development director, Cindy Cassell, the original numbers projected the 50 vendors paying the community group $400,000 a year in rent by the third year of operation.

That's $8,000 a year in rent per vendor -- a hefty sum for your average local farmer. Even if those original numbers are "out the window," as Ms. Cassell says, the fact that they were ever proposed raises serious questions about whether the group will be able to recruit farmers, who can rent space at six city farmer's markets each week between mid-May and mid-November -- when they actually have something to sell -- for a grand total of $1,000.

Neighbors in the Strip hasn't taken a position on whether streets should be extended through the building. But the group does support adding more housing to the Strip District, Ms. Cassell said.

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Workmen perform maintenance on the gravel stop drainage feature on the overhang of the Produce Terminal.
Click photo for larger image.Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
The length of the produce terminal forms a wall between Smallman Street and the riverfront.
Click photo for larger image.

"We're not sure what the plans are for that," she said, referring to the Buncher property between the terminal and the riverfront. "But having residential development in the Strip District just seems good for everybody. Wouldn't it be nice to show there's a riverfront there?"

Maybe so. But to the extent that Buncher gains from breaking up the terminal, the public loses.

Although it lacks official historic designation, the produce terminal nevertheless was central to the city's history for decades, and that deserves respect. Its vast expanse is a crucial part of its appeal, along with its forklifts and its tractor-trailers and its sacks of bulk onions and its pallets of watermelons.

They combine to create the sense that you have stepped into a warehouse, not a shopping mall, that somehow you have stepped into a piece of the past that developed without a feasibility study, a piece of Pittsburgh that is slipping inexorably away from us.

A new market could be wonderful, giving shoppers the locally grown fruit and vegetables that aren't so easy to find in the rest of the Strip District, where a lot of produce is shipped in from California and Florida and often looks no better -- and sometimes much worse -- than what you'd find in any Giant Eagle.

Under the right management, a marketplace in the terminal building could provide an inexpensive entry point into the retail market for local farmers, both old and new, for cheese makers, beekeepers, bakers, chocolatiers, coffee roasters, butchers, pickle- and sauerkraut makers, wine makers, flower sellers and scores of other businesses that need refrigeration, want to operate year-round and would rather put a solid roof over their heads than set up a leaky tent at seasonal markets.

Such a market could draw more people to the Strip during the week, when many shops are in a lull. And it could attract more business to the few retail businesses that now operate in the building.

Brad Kokowski, owner of Superior Produce Co. in the terminal, said he would like a retail market, but only if it's done right.

"I'm all for change, I'm all for growth, but still keeping intact the integrity [of the terminal]," Mr. Kokowski said. "This building is a wonderful asset, so what do we do with it? That's why we have to control this and make sure it doesn't make it another Station Square."

To remain true to the original spirit of the building, a few things need to happen. First, this unique, irreplaceable part of the city's history should be officially designated as a historic landmark and protected from demolition .

And if Neighbors in the Strip is serious about organizing a retail market, the group needs to leave the building its gritty dignity, understanding that its roughneck warehouse feel is a big part of what makes it an exciting place to visit. The group's members should restrain their urge to emasculate that atmosphere by plastering, painting, paving and gilding the building into submission.

To keep the building's local touch, vendors should be required to grow, raise or make the products they sell, from locally grown fruits and vegetables to pasture-raised meat, homemade cheese and home-baked pies.

That requirement would set sellers apart from most shops in the Strip District, creating an additional draw and keeping them from competing directly with the established stores on Smallman and Penn. To prevent an invasion of knick-knacks, any crafts should also be locally produced and of high quality.

Neighbors in the Strip would have to pay for improvements such as handicap accessibility and an upgraded sewer system to accommodate the hordes of shoppers that hopefully will arrive, but cosmetic "improvements" should be kept to a minimum. That way, the group could pass through the relatively low rent available from the URA at about $3.50 a square foot.

And instead of imposing their vision, the group should let the vendors add their own individual personalities to the market. Give them a chance to work together to make the improvements they think are necessary, that they believe will appeal to customers and ultimately help them make more money.

Most of all, give the marketplace and its business owners a chance to evolve on their own, naturally becoming as unique, as colorful and as irreplaceable as the building in which they are located.

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Limes at Coosemans in the produce terminal.
Click photo for larger image.

Food editor Amy McConnell Schaarsmith can be reached at aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1760.


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