Judge rules against popular club's expansion plans in Lawrenceville

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An Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas judge has dealt a blow to the Thunderbird Cafe's expansion plans in Lawrenceville.

Judge Joseph James reversed the zoning board of adjustment's approval last summer of two variances and two special exceptions for the Thunderbird. John Pergal, owner of the popular live music venue on Butler Street, had proposed demolishing an adjacent building to add a 3,200-square-foot restaurant, upstairs apartments and expanded capacity in the Thunderbird from 246 to 625 seats. The Thunderbird's expansion called for an off-site parking lot for 200 cars.

A score of residents spoke in opposition to the plan at a zoning board hearing in April, citing noise and traffic concerns.

Attorney Thomas Madigan filed an appeal for the nonprofit stakeholder groups Lawrenceville Corp. and Lawrenceville United and said the court's decision this week was not surprising due to "pretty obvious technical errors" in the zoning board's approvals.

The decision, which was filed Thursday, relates largely to parking. The zoning board voted without specifics on how increased parking requirements would be met, the ruling states.

"The board erred in finding that there would be no detrimental transportation impacts because they relied on an analysis that was not performed and a plan for valet service that was eliminated," the decision reads. "Additionally, the board erred in granting the proposed expansion because [the Thunderbird] failed to submit an alternative access and parking plan as required by code."

When Mr. Pergal's representatives explained the plan at the zoning hearing, they proposed an off-site parking lot more than 1,000 feet from the cafe's entrance. They said valet service would be available.

The court found the zoning board "could not grant a conditional approval upon an applicant's mere promise that it will bring its plan into compliance."

The court also determined the cafe's proposal did not meet conditions for variances in part because it did not have unique physical or topographical hardships to overcome.

Mr. Pergal's attorney, Mitch Zemel, said his client has been working with the appellants on compromises for nearly two years, and that the parties had reached an agreement the day before the court's decision was filed, but he said he was not privy to them.

"We have a time period in which to appeal or to go back to zoning board," he said. "The hope would be that the parties follow through."

"We haven't actually finalized an agreement," said Lauren Byrne, executive director of Lawrenceville United. She said the litigation had tied their hands but that stakeholders want to work with Mr. Pergal.

"John's a good guy who lives in the neighborhood, and we like the Thunderbird" as it exists, she said. "We've appreciated his willingness to work with us to figure out how they can make this work."

Mr. Pergal could not be reached to discuss whether his plans have changed or what he expects from continuing talks with stakeholder groups.

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.

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