Redevelopment to alter face of landmark terminal in Strip
By Bob Bauder
Published: Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012
A city-backed redevelopment of the Strip District waterfront would bring new life and commerce to one of Pittsburgh's signature neighborhoods, supporters say.
Merchants and other property owners worry the partial demolition of the landmark Produce Terminal on Smallman Street and a plan to build up to a dozen buildings around it could hurt the dynamic of the distinctive marketplace that has attracted shoppers for generations.
"The Strip is very historic. It's very diverse. It's very ethnic. Let's not change that," said Becky Rodgers, executive director of the group Neighbors in the Strip. "Change is going to happen. The key thing is don't upset the apple cart."
Developer Thomas Balestrieri said he shares those concerns. He started working in his family produce business as a young man and made daily trips from the North Side to the Strip.
"The Strip is a unique area," said Balestrieri, CEO of The Buncher Co., which owns land around the Produce Terminal and leases the building from the city Urban Redevelopment Authority. "The Buncher Co. has been very successful in this area, and we want to continue that success. Maintaining the integrity of the Strip is very critical to us."
Buncher, headquartered along nearby Penn Avenue in former railroad buildings it transformed years ago, plans to demolish one block of the building from 16th Street to 17th Street, opening access to 55 acres of vacant property paralleling the Allegheny River from 11th Street to 21st Street.
Balestrieri could not say when crews might start demolition. It won't happen until after tenants' leases expire in December.
Buncher's lease with an option to buy the building for $1.8 million gives the company 18 months after purchase to build a 75-unit apartment building along the river. The developer would improve roads, sidewalks and sewers and extend 17th Street to a riverfront public piazza. Longer-term, Buncher would build 11 more buildings to house offices, residences and retailers on property it owns along Smallman and behind the terminal, now mainly parking lots.
"The market's largely going to dictate what happens when," Balestrieri said. "This plan is current, but ... it's going to change."
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said the Buncher project could trigger change on a scale equal to what happened with SouthSide Works, which transformed an abandoned steel mill site into blocks of retail, office and entertainment space.
The mayor's riverfront plan would redevelop Railroad Street from the Strip to the Highland Park Bridge. It includes building a commuter rail line and making the street more suitable for pedestrians and bicyclists.
"I clearly think we have the potential to do the same quality of development that we've done on the South Side and East Liberty," Ravenstahl said. "Ten years from now, I think we're going to be looking back and saying, 'Wow, that's a great development and great success story.'"
Gary Studeny, 33, a partner in Studeny Produce LLC of Gibsonia, said he once got all his goods at the terminal building, but that changed after the URA announced a plan to make changes several years ago and wholesalers began leaving the location. Instead of dozens, three wholesalers now lease space there.
"Now you've got to drive all over the place, and that's a lot of time and gas," Studeny said.
Rodgers and other Strip advocates said their main concern is maintaining the small and diverse businesses that draw weekend crowds.
"I think it's good they're going to develop Smallman Street to the river," said Harvey Robins, a Downtown attorney, who owns a building on Penn Avenue. "My concern, and I think the concern of all the people in the Strip, is they don't want to lose the Strip's draw."
The Pittsburgh Public Market, which hosts about 30 vendor spaces in the targeted end of the Produce Terminal, helped bring shoppers to Smallman since opening in 2010. John Port, 58, a sixth-generation beef farmer from Clarion County, said he started bringing the meats his family sold on the farm to the market last year to take advantage of the customer draw.
"This has been very successful for us," Port said. "Customers can stand there and actually see the people who raised this product. There's no other way for us to address this market. Without it, we're not here."
Buncher would move the market to a larger space with a demonstration kitchen on the 21st Street side of the building. Manager Tiffani Emig said the market could close for a week or so, but staffers are trying to keep the transition smooth.
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