The August Wilson Center for African American Culture’s tale of woe was reflected in the big bold letters posted at its entrance Tuesday: SHERIFF’S SALE.
That’s the fate that could await the center’s Downtown property at 9 a.m. Oct. 6 at the Allegheny County Courthouse unless court-appointed conservator Judith Fitzgerald is able to cut a deal to sell the building before then.
County sheriff deputies posted the official notice of the sheriff’s sale on the center’s front doors Tuesday.
It could signal an ignoble end for the heavily subsidized $40 million center, which opened in 2009 and was designed to celebrate African-American culture in Pittsburgh.
Dollar Bank moved to foreclose on the property last year after the center defaulted on its $7.9 million mortgage. The bank said in court last month that it would foreclose Oct. 6 if there was no private sale by then.
Although Tuesday’s posting was a legal formality, it signifies how precarious the center’s future has become.
Ms. Fitzgerald is trying to work out a deal to sell the Liberty Avenue real estate to New York developer 980 Liberty Partners for $9.5 million, the higher of two bids received.
Eric Schaffer, Dollar’s attorney, said Tuesday’s posting does not preclude the sale to 980 Liberty. “This is simply the ordinary procedure for the scheduled sheriff’s sale,” he said.
However, the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority has been trying to block the sale in court, claiming it would violate deed covenants, including one it argues restricts the building’s use to an African-American cultural center. Another prevents building modifications without URA consent.
Both could affect 980 Liberty’s ability to complete the sale. It wants to put a 200-room luxury hotel on top of the structure while keeping the cultural center in part of the building.
The URA, city Mayor Bill Peduto and county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, no relation to the conservator, favor a $7.2 million bid advanced by the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and the Richard King Mellon Foundation. The foundations would keep the center operating as a hub for African-American arts and culture, with day-to-day oversight provided by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.
But the bid, which includes $1.2 million from the URA and $1 million from a county-related entity, would not be enough to cover the money owed to Dollar Bank, let alone other debts.
Former city councilman Sala Udin, an August Wilson Center founding member, said the sheriff’s sale posting “was anticipated, but it could be avoided. I think if Dollar Bank were a little more flexible, we could solve this thing in an instant.”
Mr. Udin, who supports the foundations’ offer, said Dollar could accept a little less than what it is owed to keep the center operating in a way that’s in line with its original mission.
“Everybody’s putting in something,” he said of efforts to save the center. “I don’t know why they’re not being flexible. They’re not going to get any more than what they’re owed.”
In response, Mr. Schaffer said that Dollar “does not own this property. It is a secured lender.” It was a reference to the fact that Ms. Fitzgerald has control over the sale and already has an agreement with 980 Liberty to buy the building.
Mark Belko: email@example.com or 412-263-1262. First Published August 12, 2014 12:00 AM