East Hills Shopping Center site on auction block

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The site of the former East Hills Shopping Center, which has been through a series of unsuccessful redevelopment attempts, is scheduled for a sheriff's sale Feb. 4.

But the development arm of the church that owns the site straddling the Penn Hills-Wilkinsburg-Pittsburgh border says it doesn't expect the 44-acre site to be sold.

It hopes to announce a new development project in the next few weeks.

The site, now owned by Operation Nehemiah, was advertised for the sheriff's sale on Monday. First Commonwealth Bank claims the owner has defaulted on $2.2 million it owes the bank.

Operation Nehemiah is the development wing of Petra Ministries, which owns the property and operates a church out of the former Zayre department store.

"This is not the position you want to be in," said Connie Balthrop, president of Operation Nehemiah.

"We think it will work out and it won't be sold at the sheriff's sale," she said.

She said she is continuing to work with potential developers and is "very close" to a development agreement.

"We are working on some options," she said. "We think we are going to have something to announce in a few weeks."

The former shopping center closed in 1980 and sat mostly vacant until Petra purchased the site in 1999. Various plans for a Kmart, Walmart super center and Lowe's home improvement store have been announced only to fall through before construction could begin.

Penn Hills planning director Howard Davidson, who long has had doubts about the church's ability to redevelop the site, said that a sheriff's sale might not be a bad thing. About 74 percent of the land is in Penn Hills, 25 percent in Wilkinsburg and 1 percent in Pittsburgh, but the three taxing bodies agreed years ago to share tax revenue from the site to encourage redevelopment.

"Maybe somebody will buy it and do something with it," he said Monday.

"We want that site to be redeveloped. Right now, it's a sea of concrete waiting for someone to build on it."

Over the years, Allegheny County and the local municipalities have spent millions of dollars to raze empty buildings at the site and improve the neighborhoods around it to entice developers without success.

Ms. Balthrop said she expects that to change this year.

"I think this is going to be a magical year," she said. "I think this is when it is going to happen."

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Ed Blazina: eblazina@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1470.


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