A local preservation group won a key victory Wednesday in its battle to prevent part of the Strip District's produce terminal from being razed as part of a developer's plan to improve access for a proposed residential and office project.
City historic review commission members voted, 3-0, to recommend to city council that the Strip landmark be designated as a city historic structure.
The decision is a blow to the plans by the Buncher Co. to demolish the western third of the structure so it can extend 17th Street to the Allegheny River as part of its $450 million Riverfront Landing residential and office project.
Buncher officials declined comment after the vote but argued during the meeting that their plan offered the best hope for preserving the terminal and that a designation ultimately could end up doing the reverse of what was intended. They said that while their proposal would lop off 529 feet of the building, it would preserve 953 feet of it.
Preservation Pittsburgh nominated the building for the historic designation after Buncher sought permission from the city in April to demolish a third of it to clear a path to the river. The developer has an option to purchase the structure from the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority for $1.8 million.
The historic review commission recommendation now will go before city council, which ultimately will decide the terminal's fate. The city planning commission also will meet later this month to make its own recommendation to council.
A designation as a city historic structure would make it much more difficult, though not impossible, to demolish any part of the terminal, opened in 1929.
In their vote Wednesday, commission members agreed that the terminal met four of the requirements for designation, one being that its unique location or distinctive physical appearance represented an established or familiar visual feature.
The commission also determined that the five-block-long structure represented an architectural type, style or design distinguished by innovation rarity, uniqueness or overall quality of design; that it was associated with important cultural or social aspects or events in the city's history; and that it exemplified a pattern of neighborhood development or settlement.
"This is an iconic image of what Pittsburgh is and what it was and continues to play a role and significance in our architectural makeup in this city," said Ernie Hogan, the commission's acting chairman.
But in opposing the designation, Buncher and URA officials insisted that a partial demolition, coupled with extensive renovations that would be in keeping with the terminal's historic character, offered the best chance to protect the aging structure.
URA acting executive director Robert Rubinstein told the commission that what was being proposed was "not a demolition plan but rather a responsible way to preserve and rehabilitate the structure" so that it will be relevant in the future.
He added that keeping the terminal in its present state "is an unacceptable option" and that Buncher is willing to sink as much as $22 million of its own money into rehabilitating it.
"Other redevelopment schemes are economically unfeasible due to the high cost to re-purpose this failing facility and will require significant public resources to accomplish, let alone sustain," he said.
Michael Kutzer, Buncher's vice president of real estate, accused opponents of the company's plan of using the city historic nomination process as a "stall tactic" to further their own interests.
"We are here today because they want to control future reuse of the terminal, not whether it's historic or not," he said, adding that other proposals in the past had called for pass-throughs or cut-throughs in the building to improve access to the river.
He and Albert Filoni, president of the Maclachlan, Cornelius & Filoni architectural firm Buncher is using on the project, said the terminal is in dire need of repairs, has holes in the roof, inadequate plumbing, nearly no utilities, and major structural deficiencies.
"The fact is practically every pier is in trouble," Mr. Filoni said.
In addition, of the 148 original doors still in the terminal, 87 percent are in poor condition. Nonetheless, Buncher is willing to invest the money to put back "everything that is architecturally correct and integral to what the history of the building was all about."
"We want to preserve the building. That land was very different in the 19th century and the 20th century and today. We would like to make it today for people," he said.
Buncher representatives also noted that the section of the terminal that would be demolished was actually added in the early 1930s and was not part of the original structure.
But supporters of the designation maintained that the building, as it stands now, is one of a kind and part of what makes the Strip special.
"It speaks to a unique, rich, historic piece of Pittsburgh, which is our wholesale produce district," said Sarah Kroloff, the terminal's nominator. "I would be concerned about tearing away the very pieces of what made this area ... everything that it is today."
"If you let them take that building apart, you're not changing the building, you're changing the Strip District," added Dave Workman, who worked at the terminal for 30 years.
Mr. Kutzer said after a preliminary HRC vote in support of the nomination in July that a designation could "possibly" kill the entire redevelopment. Buncher officials, in other public comments, have since said it would not do so.
Mark Belko: email@example.com or 412-263-1262. First Published October 2, 2013 11:15 PM