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Strip District remake gets OK

| Tuesday, June 12, 2012, 9:19 p.m.

Pittsburgh's planning commission on Tuesday approved a preliminary proposal to remake a portion of the Strip District, which includes the partial demolition of the landmark Produce Terminal.

"I don't want to lose what the Strip is," said attorney Harvey Robbins, who owns property in the neighborhood known for its longtime local businesses. "I get the impression the Strip is going to be overrun."

He and others said the developer of the $400 million project, the Buncher Co., hadn't spoken to them.

But commission members said the public has had plenty of opportunity to offer input, including a number of community meetings. They added that their approval, along with recommendations to City Council to set up a specially planned district to steer development and zoning changes, was just the first step in a long process.

"At some point, it's time to move forward," Commissioner John Valentine said.

The Buncher Co. is proposing a mix of residential, commercial and retail development on about 37 acres of land between Smallman Street and the Allegheny River. Buncher representatives showed the commission drawings that included a pedestrian piazza and other amenities, but said those were only possibilities.

A cornerstone of the plan is the renovation of the Produce Terminal.

Michael Kutzer, Buncher vice president of real estate, said the building is in bad shape, and the company wants to put office and retail space there, and hoped that some of the present vendors would be a part of it.

Jim Wholey, whose family runs Wholey's fish market in the Strip, said Buncher's influence concerned him.

"I'm nervous of the free hand Buncher would have in developing this project," he said.

But planning commission members said that Buncher would have to obtain multiple approvals for the project, so there would be plenty of other opportunities to speak out.

"What you see are preliminary plans and pretty pictures," said Becky Rodgers, executive director of Neighbors in the Strip. "But what goes in there depends on economics."

Separately, Pittsburgh City Councilman Patrick Dowd for the third time refused to introduce legislation that would offer Buncher a $50 million financing package.

Dowd said previously he's not against the tax increment financing, or TIF, district, but said he wanted more details on Buncher's plans.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl issued a statement reaffirming his support for the TIF.

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