Peduto looks for alternatives to Buncher's Strip District development plan
October 1, 2013 8:00 AM
Bill Peduto: "I want to be able to show [Buncher] that there is a potential third way of doing it."
By Mark Belko Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
City Councilman Bill Peduto is looking for a "third way" to accomplish a proposed $450 million residential and office development in the Strip District -- one that may not involve the produce terminal or the demolition of a third of it.
In a speech to supporters last weekend, Mr. Peduto, the Democratic nominee for mayor and heavy favorite in the November election, said he is talking to the developer, the Buncher Co., about "decoupling" the produce terminal from the rest of the development.
His comments came as the city Historic Review Commission prepares to hold a hearing Wednesday on the proposed designation of the Strip landmark as a city historic structure, one that would make it much harder for Buncher to demolish part of the building to extend 17th Street to the Allegheny River as part of its development plans.
In an interview last week, Mr. Peduto said he understands how important access to the river is for Buncher, but he added that there may be ways to provide for that without demolishing 535 feet of the five-block-long terminal.
The councilman said he has been meeting with Buncher representatives every few weeks to discuss the development and ways to achieve it while at the same time addressing "sticking points," including riverfront access, proper stormwater mitigation, historic preservation and the potential for an adaptive reuse of the terminal.
"At the end of the day, I want to be able to show to them and to their board that there is a potential third way of doing it that still allows them to do what they want to do on their property," he said.
Mr. Peduto doesn't believe the terminal building, once the hub for produce wholesalers in the region but now nearly vacant, necessarily has to be part of Buncher's Riverfront Landing project.
"Obviously their concern with the terminal building is that it provides a wall between what they want to do and the Strip District itself. So if there are ways to find a different developer for the terminal building that would also be open to ideas of having access through the building to the site that would fit within Buncher's plans, then we should be pursuing that," he said.
Buncher, which is leasing the terminal from the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority, has an option to purchase the property for $1.8 million. In addition to demolishing a third of the building, it wants to convert the rest into office and retail space.
But Mr. Peduto said there are others who have an interest in pursuing other types of ventures if Buncher would relinquish control of the building.
One is architect Rob Pfaffmann, who led the unsuccessful bid to save the Civic Arena from demolition after the Consol Energy Center was built. He is talking to investors interested in converting the terminal into a 21st-century incubator for the food economy.
Instead of razing a third of the structure, Mr. Pfaffmann is proposing to create a pass-through in one section that would allow Buncher to extend 17th Street to the river. He declined comment Monday.
However, Mr. Peduto cautioned that for any third-party development proposal to work, "the first thing you have to be able to do is show a business plan that has the equity."
"In other words, everyone could have an idea of what they would like to be able to see there, but unless you have the money upfront to do it, then all you're doing is the potential of keeping it mothballed and never seeing development happen," he said.
"So you have to have an organization behind you that has cash ready to spend on redeveloping that building, and then they have to be willing to work with Buncher in order to make sure that access to their development is expanded, not detracted."
Tom Balestrieri, Buncher's president, could not be reached for comment Monday. In the past, he has questioned whether wholesale produce remained a viable business model for the terminal, a point Buncher officials impressed upon Mr. Peduto as well.
"Their numbers don't work, and their concern is that if you try to preserve the building and use it for purposes such as a produce terminal with wholesale/retail, it just won't work financially," Mr. Peduto said. "But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to find others who might think differently."
The councilman said he also has been reaching out to critics of the riverfront plan. He added that his discussions with Buncher have been positive, not only about the terminal but the overall development.
"I think they've been happy to find that there's somebody trying to mitigate and mediate," he said.