Portions of Garden Theater block on North Side could open to new developers

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Several properties that a development team had exclusive options for on the Garden Theater block in the Central Northside may become available to other developers at the request of the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

The URA granted Zukin Realty and its partner, Collaborative Ventures, an exclusive option on 12 parcels in 2010. Of those, the Garden Theater was the greatest challenge and the focus, said Wayne Zukin, a principal with Zukin Realty.

But two smaller properties were stabilized and renovated first -- 1113 and 1115 Federal St. Those two and the long-vacant Bradberry apartment building on Reddour Street are at issue between the URA and the Zukin team and could be available "to open opportunities for other developers," Mr. Zukin said. "We're maintaining our exclusive on the rest of the block, but this is all still being discussed.

"The URA is asking us to get more folks involved. It will be a good thing for the block. Other folks are excited" to develop.

URA officials could not be reached.

Mr. Zukin said the discussions were prompted by the amount of time the development was taking.

"I'm a little disappointed that they're not 100 percent behind what our plans were, but it has been going on for three years," he said. "We're still here. Many developers might have walked away, but the neighborhood has been very helpful and supportive."

Mr. Zukin's team recently closed on the Garden Theater and expects to close on the adjacent Masonic Temple within a month, he said.

Interior work is underway to prepare for demolition of the back part of the former Garden Theater, where Domenic Branduzzi, chef-owner of Piccolo Forno in Lawrenceville, is expected to open ARDE, an Italian restaurant, "by late spring or early summer," Mr. Zukin said. City of Asylum Pittsburgh plans a bookstore and cafe in the Masonic Temple.

The theater "has always been the albatross," Mr. Zukin said. "At the direction of the mayor's office, who said 'Get something done,' we focused on the Garden, perhaps to the detriment or delay of the rest of the block."

Contractor Franjo Construction renovated the two Victorians on Federal, the first outward signs that anything was happening in the block's redevelopment. Now they sit with beautifully restored facades facing Rasta Cafe and El Burro, two storefront restaurants that have opened within the past year in buildings restored by other developers.

David Schlapak, development committee chair of the Allegheny City Central Association, said he expects the URA has been approached by developers who want opportunities in the block.

"The environment has changed since we started this project," he said. "More people are interested in doing more things, and this presents an opportunity to enlist other developers in moving this forward a little more rapidly."

He said the URA approached the Allegheny City nonprofit "to make sure we didn't have any objections in principle. They had involved us closely in the selection of the developer in the first place.

"I have a lot of respect for Zukin and what they've done," he said. "This project has turned out to be more complicated and difficult than anyone thought. Part way through the process, a commitment of $4 million evaporated, and they had to go out on the commercial market and find it.

"I think we're going to see beautiful things happening in the Garden and the Masonic" hall, he said. "But we were probably over-optimistic to think that one developer was going to be able to take on a project of this size in a timely manner."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

First Published December 12, 2013 3:44 PM

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