Strip District terminal ideas heard

Developer would raze part of it

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All of those gathered before city council Tuesday agreed that the Strip District's Pennsylvania Railroad Fruit Auction & Sales Building is historic. What they argued over was the best way to preserve it.

To Preservation Pittsburgh and its supporters, that involves designating the building commonly known as the produce terminal as a city historic structure, all but guaranteeing that its 1,533-foot length, one of its defining features, would stay intact.

To the Buncher Co. and its supporters, that means demolishing the western third of the building while spending up to $22 million to rehab the rest, both inside and outside.

Both sides made their pitches to city council Tuesday during a public hearing on the proposed historic designation for the Strip landmark. Supporters of the designation outnumbered opponents 2-to-1.

The city Historic Review Commission and the planning commission already have voted in favor of the designation. Council will have the last say in the matter. The HRC determined the terminal met four of the requirements for designation.

Preservation Pittsburgh nominated the 84-year-old structure, the hub for produce wholesalers for decades, earlier this year to prevent Buncher from razing a third of it as part of its proposed $450 million Riverfront Landing residential and office development.

A designation would make it much more difficult, though not impossible, for Buncher to proceed with plans to tear down the western third of the building to extend 17th Street to the Allegheny River.

Buncher is now leasing the terminal from the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority with an option to buy it for $1.8 million.

In his testimony before council, Michael Kutzer, Buncher's vice president of real estate, maintained that the developer's plan would do more to preserve the building than the designation itself.

Buncher, he said, is prepared to invest millions of dollars to restore the terminal, sans the western third, to its original look, while adding nearly nonexistent utilities and other modern amenities like air conditioning and heating.

Even with the demolition, the terminal still would be an uninterrupted six blocks long, one less than the current seven. That, he said, is better than alternatives like pass-throughs or cutting the building into sections to create links to the river, as others have proposed.

Buncher is willing to undertake the project, he said, even though it will be a proverbial "loss leader" and won't generate revenue.

"It is so expensive to build. We can build a new building for half of what this would cost just to save it," he said.

A historic designation could add millions to the cost and create an "uncertain" situation as to the future of the project. Buncher has warned that it may abandon the rehab altogether if the designation is approved.

Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, backed the Buncher plan, saying it "makes a very good trade for the people of Pittsburgh." In exchange for demolishing a third of the terminal, Buncher will connect the Strip and add an esplanade to the river and make much-needed improvements to the rest of the building, he said.

But Sarah Kroloff, who was the nominator for Preservation Pittsburgh, said the historic designation would not hinder development but "make sure that we do it properly" by adding oversight by the city historic review commission.

Likewise, Peter Margittai, president of Preservation Pittsburgh, said the designation would allow for a more open process "so that a final decision of what happens to this building is not left solely in the hands of the developer."

It also would give others a chance to come forward with ideas for renovating the building. Architect Rob Pfaffmann, for instance, has been talking to investors about converting the terminal into a 21st-century incubator for the food economy and unique retail shops.

Sam Patti, owner of LaPrima Expresso, a former terminal vendor that relocated to the North Side this year, said the designation is needed to protect what he called a "regional asset."

"It is unconscionable to me that we have this important historic district and we're going to let one developer decide without talking to other people," he said.

Afterwards, Councilman Bruce Kraus said he was "open to all sides" and promised that he and council would "fully vet this subject and not make a decision in haste."

Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle said the question is not whether the terminal is historic, but "what's best for the Strip District, what's best for development." Council likely will take up the designation next week.


Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262. First Published November 26, 2013 12:44 PM

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