Buncher Co. opposes historic status for Strip Distict produce terminal

The Buncher Co. is urging Pittsburgh City Council to reject a historic designation for the produce terminal, arguing that its plan to demolish a third of the building and renovate the rest offers the "best solution for safeguarding" the Strip District landmark.

In a four-page letter to council members, Tom Balestrieri, Buncher president and CEO, said rejecting the city historic structure designation would allow Buncher to rehabilitate the remaining two-thirds of the terminal, return the building to the tax rolls and move forward with other aspects of its proposed $450 million Riverfront Landing office and residential development.

That would include construction of a residential building with at least 75 units along the Allegheny riverfront, the extension of 17th Street to the river, and the start of design work and pre-marketing for a new building between 16th and 17th streets.

But Mr. Balestrieri warned council that if it votes in favor of the designation and Buncher is unable to reach agreement with the city Historic Review Commission on a "mutually acceptable rehabilitation plan, we will likely have no choice but to walk away," although it was unclear whether he was talking about the terminal project or the entire riverfront development. He could not be reached for comment Thursday night.

Both the Historic Review Commission and city planning commission have voted in favor of the designation for the 1,533-foot-long terminal, hub of the city's wholesale produce industry for decades but now nearly vacant. Buncher has an option to buy it from the city Urban Redevelopment Authority for $1.8 million.

The lobbying comes even as Mayor-elect Bill Peduto has been championing a "third way" to do the development that could involve "decoupling" the terminal from the rest of the project and finding a way to provide riverfront access without razing any of the terminal.

Buncher is proposing to raze 529 feet of the building at its western end to extend 17th Street and spend up to $22 million to rehab the rest. Mr. Balestrieri wrote that it settled on that approach after years of study and discussions with Strip stakeholders, state and local preservation groups, the URA and others.

"The cost differential between the alternatives is substantial; however we are certain that our plan is the most financially viable, maintains an unbroken length of the terminal, and also provides excellent access to the riverfront," he wrote.

Mr. Balestrieri said Buncher and the URA fear that if the designation is awarded the terminal will continue to deteriorate and that no developer will touch it without "a great deal of subsidy" from government.

Council has the final say on the historic designation and will hold a public hearing Nov. 26.

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

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