Plan would turn Strip District terminal into colossal marketplace
May 21, 2014 12:41 AM
A view of the Strip District's produce terminal.
By Mark Belko / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Michael Rubino wants to bring a bit of Seattle's Pike Place Market to Pittsburgh's Strip District.
Mr. Rubino, whose family has been part of the Strip for nearly a century, wants to turn the neighborhood's iconic produce terminal into a "grand marketplace" filled with farmers, Amish vendors, businesses that specialize in closeout merchandise and local merchants looking to try something new or different.
"My dad loved the Strip. I love the Strip, and that's my interest in this project," he said.
The businessman heads up Rubino Partners, one of three developers to submit proposals to the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority to redevelop the terminal.
In his first interview about his group's plans, Mr. Rubino said his goal is to turn the nearly vacant and decaying 1,533-foot-long warehouse, once the hub for produce wholesalers, into a state-of-the-art marketplace that would rival some of the best in the United States.
His proposal differs substantially from those of his competitors, who would convert the terminal largely for residential purposes. Mr. Rubino's plan does not include any housing.
"My opinion is that housing is a very vanilla use for a spectacular building," he said. "I think a marketplace can create so much more business for the city and the region."
Mr. Rubino sees his plan as an extension of the Strip itself. He said he has been in discussions with Strip merchants about the concept and that some are interested in being part of the marketplace -- not with their existing businesses but with new ones.
One, Larry Lagattuta, owner Enrico Biscotti on Penn Avenue, has signed a letter of intent with Mr. Rubino's group to make and sell wine and bread from the terminal. He said the building offers the "perfect scenario" for such a venture.
Mr. Rubino said current Strip merchants would receive "special priority" in obtaining space in the building.
"After all, they're the ones that made the Strip District the No. 1 tourist attraction in Pittsburgh, so they're very important to this project," he said.
Plans also call for the creation of a "farmers row" on the docks in the back of the building facing the Allegheny River. Farmers would be able to pull their trucks up to the docks and sell vegetables and fruits directly to consumers from there. There also would be space inside the marketplace for them.
But the cornerstone of the venture, Mr. Rubino said, would be the closeout vendors -- those that sell discontinued, overstocked, or end-of-season merchandise at greatly discounted prices.
Mr. Rubino himself is a wholesale distributor of such merchandise and once operated from the Strip before expanding and moving to McKeesport.
He said he has a letter of intent with Maine-based Marden's, which does more than $100 million a year in sales of closeouts, from furniture and housewares to health and beauty aids, to take space in the terminal.
"This is going to be a big part of our marketplace," he said. "This will introduce new vendors to the Pittsburgh area and new product categories to the Strip District."
Others that would be featured in the marketplace include Amish vendors as well as businesses just starting out or testing a new product or service. Such "incubator" ventures would be able rent 100 square feet of space a day for $50.
The marketplace also would include at least four sit-down restaurants.
Overall, the plan would total about $19 million and would be financed largely through private money and tax credits. Mr. Rubino said his intent is to lease the building from the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority rather than buy it at the asking price of at least $2.5 million.
Mr. Rubino said his plan would complement the Buncher Co.'s proposed $450 million Riverfront Landing residential and office development to be built around the terminal.
"Our plan doesn't duplicate the Buncher plan. It doesn't compete with the Buncher plan. It's an asset to the Buncher plan," he said.
Like the other two developers bidding for the building, Mr. Rubino would keep the entire terminal and its roof intact. The rehabbed building, designed by architect Rob Pfaffmann, part of Rubino Partners, would feature a portal for vehicles and pedestrians at 17th Street to connect to the river. There also would be portals, or "entrance lobbies," at 18th and 20th streets for pedestrians but not vehicles.
Rubino Partners is competing against the Ferchill Group of Cleveland, which is proposing to convert the terminal into 209 apartments with a produce market at the west end, and Chicago-based McCaffery Interests, which wants to turn the building into residential units and life-work lofts.
The URA requested proposals from developers after Buncher gave Mayor Bill Peduto six months to talk to others about redeveloping the Strip landmark.
Buncher, which has an option to buy the terminal from the URA for $1.8 million, has its own plans to rehab the structure at a cost of more than $20 million. But it ran into trouble when it proposed demolishing the western third of the terminal to extend 17th Street to the river, a plan opposed by Mr. Peduto and many preservationists.
The URA, with the help of Fourth Economy Consulting, is reviewing the proposals from Rubino, Ferchill and McCaffery.
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