Two decades later, razing of Syria Mosque still a sore topic

Twenty-one years after it all came down, state Sen. Jim Ferlo still hears the song every time he passes the Oakland site.

"As Joni Mitchell would say, 'They paved over paradise and put up a parking lot.' "

To the Highland Park Democrat and other Pittsburgh preservationists, "paradise" in this case was the Syria Mosque concert hall, a 3,700-seat, ornate, faux-Middle Eastern-style building -- a style dubbed "Shriner Islamic" by one historian.

It sat for 74 years on Bigelow Boulevard, across the street from the equally iconic Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and behind the Pittsburgh Athletic Association buildings, playing host to legends from Frank Sinatra to Yul Brynner and the Cure.

Despite one of the fiercest preservation battles in the city's history that culminated with Mr. Ferlo, then a Pittsburgh city councilman, and three fellow supporters being arrested the morning bulldozers rode in on Aug. 27, 1991, the Mosque and its acoustically perfect hall couldn't be saved.

Now in its place is a surface parking lot for UPMC and University of Pittsburgh employees.

"It's just sad, you know?" said Marshall Goodwin, an Oakland resident and preservationist who was arrested with Mr. Ferlo. "It didn't have to come down."

The building's owner, the Shriners, had it demolished so that it could sell the 2 acres of land under it to UPMC, then known as Presbyterian University Health System, for $10 million.

"At the time it was probably one of the highest prices ever paid for real estate in the city at $5 million an acre for land," said Greg Hand, who was vice president in charge of development and construction in 1991 for National Development Corp. and was the main architect behind the deal that brought UPMC together with the Shriners.

Though the hospital system tried to conceal its role as buyer for months in 1991 -- until it was forcibly revealed during a court hearing -- its purchase of the site, and what it has done with it since, is for many observers a prime example of how UPMC pays inflated prices for taxable land and takes it off the tax rolls.

The Shriners had hoped to save the building, but it would have cost them too much to upgrade and maintain.

"A lot of people wanted to save it, but they didn't know what they wanted to save," said Norman Arbes, Shriner's potentate, or top officer, in 1991. "It would have cost $11 million to renovate it, and we couldn't afford it."

The Shriners wanted to get as much as they could for the land so they could build a new hall and headquarters in the suburbs.

UPMC, which wanted the flat, 2 acres in the heart of Oakland to develop two office buildings worth $40 million, made demolition of the Mosque part of the purchase agreement.

It famously outbid the University of Pittsburgh -- which may have preserved the concert hall, Mr. Ferlo said -- in a land battle that caused a rift between what were then two institutions more closely tied than they are now.

Throughout the five-month debate before demolition began, UPMC and National Development argued that razing a money-losing concert hall was a fair trade for the two office buildings they planned to build in four years.

"The whole issue of urgency [to tear the building down] was always predicated on the statement that, 'Hey, we need to develop this part of Oakland.' And it never happened," said Sam Cordes, the attorney who represented the preservationists in court. "Witness after witness came in and said [of the new buildings] 'This is going to be a godsend.' "

UPMC refused to answer questions from the Post-Gazette about what happened to the plan to build the office towers, and the site's ongoing life as a parking lot is confusing to many.

"That's a real mystery to us," said Nathan Hart, an architect, Oakland resident and president of Oakland Planning and Development Corp., a neighborhood advocacy group that includes UPMC as one of its major funders and official partners. "It's a large, flat, developable site. And a surface parking lot isn't the highest and best use of the site."

After the sale went through, National Development signed a deal with UPMC to be the developer of both the Iroquois Building on Forbes Avenue in Oakland, and the Mosque. The Iroquois Building project was completed a couple of years later.

But after Pitt put a hold on any new development in 1992 -- at a time when the university had the power to make such decisions for UPMC -- it said site development would be delayed a couple years while Pitt put together a master plan for it and UPMC's campus.

The site was converted into a "temporary" parking lot, and UPMC converted it from taxable to tax-exempt. In 1991, the last year the building was in use, the Shriners paid $66,535 in property taxes to the city, county and school district.

Even Mr. Hand, who is semi-retired, never fully understood why it wasn't developed, though he has a guess.

"It's what I call 'hallowed ground syndrome.' [The preservation battle] made it feel risky to consider development on that ground," he said.

Mr. Ferlo thinks that's too kind : "I think that's outrageously incorrect. I think [UPMC] wanted a parking lot. I think it's the arrogance and manifest destiny attitude of [UPMC's founder Thomas] Detre and [UPMC CEO Jeffrey] Romoff."

Another issue that may play a part in why the site hasn't been developed is the extra control the city has over the property.

After the Mosque was demolished, the city later in 1991 tried to include the Mosque property in a historic district -- which would have given the city more say over the look of any building erected there. UPMC sued to stop the historic designation.

In a March 1992 settlement, the city agreed not to include the site in the historic district, but UPMC agreed to work closely with the city's historic review commission to ensure that the building would "complement" the area.

Mr. Ferlo and others say they will hold UPMC to that agreement.

"This needs to be an iconic building that over time becomes historical," he said.

Will that ever happen?

Carl Bergamini, an architect who worked on Oakland Planning and Development's recent Oakland 2025 plan for the community, said the Mosque site was the only UPMC property that specifically came up when the public discussed changes it wanted to see.

One proposal: Build new housing for middle- and upper-income retirees who might have attended Pitt or Carnegie Mellon. "People might want to retire to their alma mater and have lifelong learning available to them," he said.

Oakland Planning and Development took that idea to UPMC officials recently and "I think they were interested," Mr. Bergamini said.

But earlier this year, UPMC also put out its own plan for its properties in Oakland. It's part of a planning process required by the city to give 10- and 25-year future projections.

Nowhere is the Syria Mosque site discussed or shown in the plan.

Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579.


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