Cleveland developer eyes Strip District's produce terminal

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A Cleveland developer that has done extensive work in Pittsburgh has emerged as a candidate for redeveloping the Strip District's produce terminal.

The Ferchill Group has an interest in the Strip landmark, John Ferchill, the company's chairman and CEO, confirmed, but the developer first wants to see what happens with the Buncher Co., which has an option to buy the property from the city Urban Redevelopment Authority for $1.8 million.

Mr. Ferchill declined to say what type of redevelopment he envisions for the 1,533-foot-long building, one of the city neighborhood's most distinctive structures.

Mayor Bill Peduto said this week that four developers -- one from Ohio, one from Texas and two from Pennsylvania -- are interested in redeveloping the building. That's one more than in December, when Mr. Peduto first mentioned outside interest in the project.

The developers are considering possible reuses that include housing, wholesale, farming, and arts and culture, the mayor said. He declined to name any of them and would not confirm that the Ferchill Group was the Ohio developer he has referred to in the past.

"I've worked with Ferchill. I know who they are. I just don't want to mention any group, yes or no, on this project" at this time, Mr. Peduto said.

Ferchill is no stranger to Pittsburgh or to the redevelopment of historic properties. The firm has developed two buildings -- Bridgeside Point I and Bridgeside Point II -- at Pittsburgh Technology Center in South Oakland and Building 4 for Westinghouse Electric Co. in Cranberry.

Perhaps its best known project locally is the $72 million Heinz Lofts on the North Side. Ferchill converted five historic buildings dating from 1912 and 1913 and part of the Heinz food processing plant into 267 upscale apartments.

The Ohio firm purchased the buildings, which once stored commodities like meat, beans and cereal, in 2001 and opened Heinz Lofts in 2005. Four of the buildings are used for apartments and one for parking.

Ferchill is the second name to emerge as an alternative to Buncher for the produce terminal's redevelopment. Local architect Rob Pfaffmann is heading a group that is proposing to convert the terminal, once the hub for produce wholesalers, into a 21st-century incubator for the food economy and unique retail shops.

Buncher, based in the Strip District, has been battling local preservationists over its plans to demolish the western third of the terminal to extend 17th Street to the Allegheny River as part of its $450 million Riverfront Landing office and residential development.

It has agreed to put its plans on hold while Mr. Peduto works with other developers to try to find a "third way" to do the development and provide riverfront access without razing part of the building. "I still believe there is a far better use of that building than what had been presented earlier and that we can preserve it and make it a gem that development will want to happen around," the mayor said.

Fourth Economy Consulting, a North Shore firm that will be working with the city on the project, will be meeting with interested developers, Buncher and stakeholders in the Strip to discuss the terminal, the mayor said. It eventually will put together a vision for the building that then will be presented to the community for discussion.

Mr. Peduto would like to see the redevelopment extend beyond the terminal to include improvements to Smallman Street and other parts of the block.

"I would like to bring Smallman Street back with the Belgian block, to have decorative lighting and traffic signals to make it safer to walk, and to really see the development occur on the other side of the street as well," he said.

Even if Buncher ends up not being involved in the terminal project, Mr. Peduto said he wants to ensure the company has adequate access to its property surrounding the building for the proposed office and residential development.

Rather than demolishing part of the terminal to provide riverfront access, Mr. Pfaffmann, for one, has proposed creating portals through parts of the building.

Buncher has questioned the feasibility of such alternatives, saying its studies have found them to be impractical or too costly. It has argued that the terminal is decaying, obsolete and in need of major repairs. The company has proposed spending more than $20 million to rehab the terminal into offices and restaurants.

Mr. Peduto, on the other hand, sees a development that, in its own way and with its own mix of amenities, could rival Pike Place Market in Seattle, Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia and Faneuil Hall in Boston.

He's hoping the developers who have expressed interest in redeveloping the terminal can combine their ideas and expertise to come up with a plan.

"There's different approaches that I think that, if you start working with all of them together, you start to see a marketplace that could have the same effect of a Pike Place or a Reading Terminal that brings several million people into the Strip District every year," he said.

Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262.

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