URA ups the bid for Wilson Center

As a judge prepares to decide whether deed restrictions prevent the sale of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture to a New York developer, the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority has found the cash for its share of a back-up bid.

Over the objections of state Sen. Jim Ferlo, URA board members approved a $1.4 million grant agreement with the Pittsburgh Foundation to be used toward the purchase of the Downtown building.

It would be paired with $5 million provided by the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and the Richard King Mellon Foundation and $1 million by a county-related entity to get to a total bid of $7.2 million.

Mr. Ferlo, D-Highland Park and a URA board member, said he “strongly objected” to the spending, referring to the battle over the center as a “debacle” with no end in sight.

“I just see a bottomless pit. It’s not going to make anybody happy,” he said.

Mr. Ferlo argued the better option would be to invest the money being spent on the August Wilson Center on improving African-American cultural assets in city neighborhoods.

Court-appointed conservator Judith Fitzgerald is pushing to sell the building to New York developer 980 Liberty Partners, which has offered $9.5 million, the highest bid, for the property. The foundations have referred to their bid a “back-up” if the sale falls through.

The building ended up for sale after the August Wilson Center defaulted on its $7 million mortgage last year and Dollar Bank moved to foreclose. The URA opposes the sale to 980 Liberty Partners and has teamed with the foundations in an effort to preserve the center’s mission as a hub for African-American arts and culture.

Kevin Acklin, URA board chairman, said agency’s involvement is designed to protect its investment in the project and the deed covenants that it maintains require the building to be used for African-American arts and culture.

The issue could come to a head next week when Judge Lawrence O’Toole of Allegheny County Common Pleas Orphan’s Court holds a hearing to decide whether the covenants prevent the sale of the property to 980 Liberty Partners, which wants to build a 200-room luxury hotel on top of the building. He has called the restrictions an “open wound” in the battle over the center.

Dollar Bank has argued that the covenants are secondary to its rights as the mortgage holder, but the URA disagrees.

The URA board also voted Thursday to forgive a $574,200 loan owed by the August Wilson Center.

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

Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262. First Published July 10, 2014 12:00 AM

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