Part of Strip District landmark could be razed

Developer applies for demolition to make way for housing, offices

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The Buncher Co. appears to be poised to move ahead with plans to demolish a portion of the historic produce terminal in the Strip District despite continued legal wrangling over the fate of the property.

An application has been filed for a permit to demolish the western third of the five-block-long building as part of Buncher's plans for a $400 million residential and office development on the Allegheny riverfront.

A notice of intent to demolish, dated April 29, has been posted on the Strip landmark. A representative for the city's Bureau of Building Inspection said a demolition permit has yet to be issued, noting that the agency was still waiting for paperwork and reports to be completed.

While the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority owns the building, which has served for decades as the center of the region's wholesale produce industry, Robert Rubinstein, the URA's acting executive director, said Buncher is leading the process.

He said the notice was "just part of [Buncher's] continuing development plans" for the site under the option agreement it has with the URA regarding the produce terminal. As part of that accord, Buncher is paying the URA $15,275 a month to lease the building and has an option to buy it for $1.8 million.

Mr. Rubinstein said there have been ongoing discussions between the URA and the developer about purchasing the property. But he could not say when that would happen, referring questions to Buncher.

He also did not know how soon Buncher intended to move ahead with its plans to raze a third of the terminal, assuming it is issued a permit. He again directed questions to Buncher officials, who could not be reached for comment.

But Mr. Rubinstein stressed the URA would not permit Buncher to go ahead with the demolition until Buncher has formally purchased the building. The sale would have to be approved by city council members, some of whom have opposed Buncher's riverfront plans, including Democratic mayoral nominee Bill Peduto.

"I realize those are potential hurdles that may or may not allow Buncher's plans to advance," Mr. Rubinstein said of potential council opposition. "Our position is that until the building is sold, we would not allow the demolition to begin."

Noting that Buncher does not own the property, Mr. Peduto cautioned the developer Friday against trying to rush through the process.

"It seems like they're putting the cart in front of the horse, which would be very unfortunate," he said. "I would suggest to Buncher to slow down."

At the same time, Jonathan Kamin, an attorney for Allegheny Valley Railroad, which sued to prevent the terminal from becoming part of the Buncher development, said he was "shocked" to hear about the demolition notice, given the litigation.

While Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Robert J. Colville ruled last month that the railroad isn't entitled to an injunction to stop the project, Mr. Kamin said he intends to appeal the decision to Commonwealth Court. He also said he still has post-trial motions pending before Judge Colville.

"It hasn't left the Court of Common Pleas yet and they're trying to knock it down. This is an attempt to circumvent the litigation and it shows an unbelievable level of arrogance," he said. "If they knock it down, they better be prepared to rebuild it."

The railroad claimed in the lawsuit the URA violated a 1981 deed covenant it signed that requires it to use its "best efforts" to continue to provide space for produce wholesalers at the terminal or "some other rail-oriented use" there. Judge Colville ruled that the railroad can collect damages later if it proves its claim through a regular case.

Mr. Rubinstein said he did not think the railroad's lawsuit would have any effect on the demolition.

"I'm not aware of any litigation that would preclude them from proceeding with the project," he said.

As part of its planned $400 million riverfront complex, Buncher wants to redevelop the terminal into retail and office space. Demolishing the western third of the building would allow it to extend 17th Street to the river.

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Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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