SEA pays $5.5 million for synagogue's Hill property

Jeremy Boren
| Friday, March 21, 2008

The only synagogue serving Downtown will move for the second time in 50 years, to accommodate a new hockey arena in Pittsburgh.

The city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority voted Thursday to pay $5.5 million to buy and relocate the Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob Synagogue, the last of 13 buildings the authority needed to acquire before building a $290 million arena to be used by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The SEA plans to demolish the Jewish Orthodox synagogue in June. The congregation agreed to move out by May 15, said Mary Conturo, SEA executive director.

"This is the second time that the Jewish community has worked with the authority and agreed to relocate the synagogue for the renewal of the area," said Harvey Robins, an attorney and member of the synagogue who helped broker the deal.

Robins said the congregation allowed the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority in the early 1960s to buy and demolish its synagogue on the site of Mellon Arena.

The Colwell Street synagogue has been open since 1963.

The purchase price for the roughly 15,000-square-foot building is $2.8 million, Robins said.

The SEA will pay $2.7 million to relocate the congregation, possibly to the former Central Blood Bank offices on Fifth Avenue in Uptown. The relocation money will pay for upgrades to those offices.

Ira Frank, the congregation's president, said he is seeking a temporary place to house the congregation.

Conturo said the $2.8 million price was the best she could do because that was the offer gambling license candidate Isle of Capri Casinos made to the congregation in 2006.

Isle of Capri wanted to build a casino in the Hill District and pay for a new multipurpose arena. The company lost its bid to win a slots license from the state Gaming Control Board, which awarded it to Don Barden, owner of the Majestic Star Casino being built on the North Shore.

"It was an agreement that we were basically bound by," Conturo said, referring to Isle of Capri's promise to the congregation.

The synagogue is the second-most expensive property the SEA purchased to make way for the arena, which is expected to be completed for the Penguins 2010-11 hockey season.

The most expensive was the $8.5 million the SEA paid to buy the former St. Francis Central Medical Center. The hospital is to be demolished Saturday.

On a square-footage basis, the SEA paid more to buy the synagogue, which cost about $187 a square foot. The 350,000-square-foot hospital complex cost about $24 a square foot.

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