Developer proposes apartments in Strip District produce terminal

A decade ago, a Cleveland developer took an abandoned Heinz food processing plant on the North Side and converted it into a 267-unit upscale apartment complex.

Now it is hoping to replicate that feat on the other side of the Allegheny River in a 1,533-foot-long warehouse that served for decades as the heart of the region's wholesale produce industry.

The Ferchill Group is proposing to turn the Pennsylvania Fruit Auction and Sales Building, a Strip District landmark, into a 209-unit apartment complex with a produce market at one end -- the very end another developer, the Buncher Co., wants to demolish.

"We do a lot of historic rehabilitation. We wanted to keep the flavor and original use of the building as part of the property. We thought that was important," said Melissa Ferchill, chief executive officer of the MCM Company, a consultant to Ferchill on the project.

Ferchill was one of three developers to submits proposals to the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority by Wednesday's deadline to redevelop the nearly vacant produce terminal. The others were Rubino Partners, a local group led to Mike Rubino, a third-generation Strip businessman; and Chicago-based McCaffery Interests.

As part of its plan, Ferchill is proposing to build 96 single-story, one-bedroom units with patios on the north side of the terminal closest to the river. It is planning another 96 loft-style units with balconies on the south side of the building on Smallman Street.

Seventeen two-bedroom units would be built in the multi-story section of the terminal at the far east end. That area also would contain some type of community art space, a bicycle repair shop, and a fitness center and gathering spot for residents of the complex.

About 10,000 square feet would be devoted to the produce market on the west end of the warehouse. Ms. Ferchill said Thursday the developer is seeking to create apartments, amenities and retail activity that integrates the project with the rest of the neighborhood.

All of the apartment units would feature granite countertops and other luxury appointments. "Our market is the educated urban professional," Ms. Ferchill said.

While Buncher is proposing to demolish the western third of the building to extend 17th Street to the river, the Ferchill Group has "no interest in tearing any part of the terminal down," she said.

Instead, it would create portals through the building at 17th and 18th streets to give its residents and Buncher, which is planning a $450 million office and residential development on the riverfront, access to the water. The portals would not affect the terminal's roof, which would remain intact.

Ms. Ferchill declined to reveal rental rates for the apartments but said they would be "competitive in the market. We think we would be pretty successful leasing the units." The rates for the retail, she said, would be "extremely competitive," adding she expects no problem in finding tenants.

The overall development would cost nearly $36 million, all of it privately funded. The developer will seek federal historic tax credits to help with the financing. It also plans to pay attention to the terminal's historic characteristics, Ms. Ferchill said.

"We think it's a unique and beautiful building, one of a kind, really," she said.

The URA invited developers to submit proposals after Buncher gave Mayor Bill Peduto six months to talk to others about redeveloping the structure. Buncher, which has been managing the terminal, has an option to purchase it from the URA for $1.8 million.

It sparked controversy when it proposed demolishing 529 feet of the building to extend 17th Street. However, it also intends to spend more than $20 million to rehab the rest of the building for offices and restaurants.

Its proposed Riverfront landing office and residential development would be built around the terminal. Ms. Ferchill believes the Ferchill plan is compatible with what Buncher is planning to build.

"I don't think it's competitive with their plan, which is our goal. We hoped to be complementary," she said.

Rubino Partners has yet to release details of its proposal, but a spokeswoman has said that it will reflect the team's "knowledge of the Strip and builds on the strength of the neighborhood."

In the past, the plan has been described as converting the terminal into a 21st-century incubator for the food economy and unique shops. The group includes Downtown architect Rob Pfaffmann, who has been involved in past efforts to renovate the terminal.

McCaffery Interests, which was a partner in the Strip's Cork Factory apartment development, has not released details of its proposal, and representatives could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262.

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