Real estate experts say uses are limited for August Wilson Center suitors

Investors might not line up to buy the August Wilson Center for African American Culture even if a former U.S. bankruptcy court judge gets the go ahead to sell it.

Interest in the Downtown property with the distinctive sailboat feature may be limited, given that it was built solely as a performing arts, exhibition and educational venue, real estate experts said Thursday.

"I don't know how big of a market there is for that kind of space," said Gerry McLaughlin, executive managing director of the Newmark Grubb Knight Frank real estate firm. "Like any single-purpose building, I've got to believe that it will not be easy to turn it into something else."

Conservator Judith Fitzgerald is expected to go before Allegheny County Common Pleas Orphans' Court Judge Lawrence O'Toole today to seek permission to convert her role to a liquidating receiver as a first step toward selling the facility, opened in 2009.

Judge O'Toole appointed Ms. Fitzgerald as conservator in November as part of a bid to save the center after it defaulted on its $7 million mortgage to Dollar Bank and faced a possible foreclosure.

In an interim report issued Tuesday, Ms. Fitzgerald recommended a sale to pay off the mortgage and other outstanding debt. She said there is "simply no possibility of continued viability of AWC as it currently exists" given a lack of operating support.

While Ms. Fitzgerald has no formal offers on the building, she said Thursday that she has confidentiality agreements with a number of organizations. Some, she said, are not-for-profits, though she declined to provide more information. She would not say whether any of those who have signed confidentiality agreements are for-profit groups.

Ms. Fitzgerald has said her first choice in a buyer is someone interested in keeping it as a cultural center. That is probably the best option, real estate experts said, noting that converting the space for another use might not be easy.

"It's very tough to take a special use building and turn it into something other than what it was intended for," Mr. McLaughlin said.

In fact, Aaron Stauber, president of New Rochelle, N.Y.-based Rugby Realty, which has extensive property holdings Downtown, said the most valuable part of the property may be the land itself.

While Mr. Stauber believes the Liberty Avenue site would be a great location for offices, a hotel or apartments, he doesn't think the center lends itself to such projects.

For developers interested in converting the space, the best strategy probably is to demolish the building and start anew, he said. He thought it would be too expensive to try to add onto the existing space.

"You literally would be better off knocking down that structure and building," he said. "It would be less expensive than jury-rigging it."

One real estate firm that has explored possible hotel, office, and residential uses at the center is Downtown's Beynon & Co.

Richard Beynon, the company's president, said he sees potential to build on top of the current facility and perhaps to incorporate the center into a mixed-use development.

"I believe there would be an opportunity to make use of the lower level of the existing structure that could be worked into a mixed-use project as opposed to razing it all and developing it for a different use," he said.

While the company has explored a development at the site, Mr. Beynon declined to say what the current status of that investigation is. He said ideally he would like to see the August Wilson Center remain as it is, though he added that might require subsidies.

Peter Sukernek, vice president and general manager of Howard Hanna Commercial Real Estate Services, sees either the Pittsburgh Public Schools or the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust as the perfect owners for the building.

He said the district, whose board has been exploring a possible purchase, could use the center in conjunction with its Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12 performing arts middle and high school Downtown, while the trust could use it as an extension of its own programming.

While he agreed the building might be of interest to hotel or office developers, Mr. Sukernek said he wasn't sure that it would be possible to build on top of the existing structure.

"I see a more limited type of audience for somebody that can use that existing building and provide revenue from its operation in order to pay for it," Mr. Sukernek said.

At the same time, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said that he and Mayor Bill Peduto have been trying to craft a plan "that might make sense for the August Wilson Center moving forward."

"We've been working behind the scenes to put together a plan for the future. It's still in the works," added Kevin Acklin, Mr. Peduto's chief of staff.

Mr. Fitzgerald said the elected officials have been talking to major local foundations, the corporate and African-American communities and others in an effort to develop a rescue strategy. But he added that the center faces "severe challenges."

"We're hopeful," he said.

Ms. Fitzgerald, no relation to the executive, is interested in talking to him. "I hope he does have a great plan, and I would love to participate in it if he does," she said.

Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262.

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