Hour-long court hearing fails to resolve future of August Wilson Center

Three local foundations have returned to the table and increased their offer by $1 million to buy the debt-plagued August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Downtown.

At the same time, the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and the Richard King Mellon Foundation are engaged in talks with New York developer 980 Liberty Partners, conservator Judith Fitzgerald and others to see if there’s a way they can work together to save the center.

The three foundations have increased their offer for the property from $4 million to $5 million, John Ellis, spokesman for the Pittsburgh Foundation, said Wednesday. “We’re re-engaged in the process in two ways. One: We’re involved in ongoing discussions with the conservator and other parties, including those representing the lead bid. And two: We have returned to the table with a revised bid,” he said.

He declined further comment.

The decision to increase the offer for the building comes about a month after the foundations withdrew their $4 million bid, saying that Ms. Fitzgerald appeared to favor 980 Liberty Partners’ $9.5 million high bid and that to persist would be “futile.”

Even at $5 million, the consortium’s new offer still falls $4.5 million short of the 980 Liberty Partners bid and $2 million short of the $7 million owed by the center to Dollar Bank in the form of a delinquent mortgage. Money from the sale of the building would be used to pay off the mortgage and other debts.

The foundations have said that their main interest in buying the building would be to safeguard a community asset and to preserve its mission as a center for African-American arts programming.

They have received the backing of Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, both of whom favor the foundations’ bid and oppose that of 980 Liberty Partners.

In an interim report filed earlier this week, Ms. Fitzgerald — no relation to the executive — said 980 Liberty Partners and the foundations were exploring a possible “consensual resolution” regarding the Liberty Avenue building, named after the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who grew up in the Hill District.

Word of the foundations’ new bid came the same day Ms. Fitzgerald and representatives of the developer, the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority, the state attorney general and others met with Judge Lawrence O’Toole of Allegheny County Common Pleas Orphans’ Court in his chambers to discuss the fate of the center.

Afterwards, Ms. Fitzgerald said that she would be filing a proposed order relating to the building with Judge O’Toole in two days. She would not say what the order would involve, but it apparently would provide a means for 980 Liberty Partners to do its due diligence on the building while talks continue with the foundations and others.

Ms. Fitzgerald has been pushing the judge to approve the sale of the building to the developer so that it can perform due diligence and do engineering studies to determine if the proposed 200-room luxury hotel it wants to put on top of it is feasible.

“My read on this is, the judge asked everyone to go out and figure out how to move this forward,” said Matthew Shollar, a Squirrel Hill developer who is one of the partners in 980 Liberty Partners.

George Specter, URA attorney, said the parties are continuing to talk. The URA has argued that deed covenants prevent the building, opened in 2009, from being used for anything other than an African-American cultural center, a claim Ms. Fitzgerald disputes.

Kimberly Ellis, a niece to August Wilson who has started a campaign to save the center, criticized the uncertainty and lack of transparency surrounding the efforts to sell the building.

Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.

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