Heights Plaza tenants bounce back from fire

| Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012, 8:03 a.m.

While many business owners at the Heights Plaza Shopping Center are breathing sighs of relief, others still have a long way to go before reopening.

What at first looked like total devastation from a fire late Monday night at the Harrison shopping center has turned into a process of rebuilding for store and restaurant owners who say they are shocked there wasn't more damage.

Debora Malvone said her jaw dropped to the floor when she first entered her restaurant, J&S Pizza. Expecting the worst, she was greeted with an entirely intact pizza shop, seemingly untouched by the blaze.

J&S Pizza received approval to open Tuesday. Its owners posted on Facebook that they intend to be open Thurday.

“We were blessed,” Malvone said. “I can't say this enough.”

She thanked the fire crews and other emergency responders for working so quickly to put out the fire that started in the facade of the store next door, a vacant space that was being renovated to accommodate a sleep aid shop.

“This place had a protective shield around it,” Malvone said of her restaurant. “The community loved this place.”

A few storefronts down, Harrison's Bar and Grille was not as lucky.

The restaurant will not open before the holidays, owner Rich Siefert said.

Smoke damage coated nearly every surface of the restaurant — tables, carpets and ceiling tiles.

Harrison's was open at the time of the fire and the vents were on, Siefert said, allowing smoke to get into the restaurant.

People have been calling to make dinner reservations, he said, but “it's just not possible.”

Fire marshals still have not determined the cause of the fire, which caused about $10 million in damage.

Joe Marino, zoning and code officer for Harrison, walked around the Heights Plaza on Wednesday afternoon inspecting the businesses amid contractor and cleaning work.

“We're trying to get people up and running as soon as possible,” he said.

Everything from J & S Pizza toward Dunham's sporting goods should be cleared to open, barring smoke damage, he said.

Marino said he is trying to get electricity to the UPMC-Natrona Heights Multispecialty medical facility so cleanup crews can start pumping water out of the building.

“The weather is getting bad, so we want to get people into their businesses,” he said. “But our main objective is to make sure everything is safe and no one has any problems coming in and out of businesses.”

Despite contractor trucks, sopping sidewalks and roofs, piles of charred wood and construction equipment, customers made their way into open businesses, like Dunham's and Quinio Barbershop.

“I thought, by the way it looked from photos, it was all gone,” said local resident Barbara Pollick. “I'm glad it wasn't as bad as it looked.”

Pollick was shopping at Dunham's. She said she remembered when it was a G.C. Murphy five-and-dime store when the plaza was built in 1955.

“I'm glad there are still stores here,” she said.

Over at the Family Christian Store, employee Scott Cole turned away customer after customer as a crew worked to clean the store's merchandise.

“We've been getting a lot of calls, people praying for us,” he said. “That's nice to hear.”

The store is expected to be open by Friday at the latest, according to Cole.

At Drums 'n More, owner Tom Lukasik said he is relieved the damage is not as bad as he originally believed.

On the night of the fire, he and his wife, Marlene, broke down watching as the fire consumed the facade of row of shops.

“We thought there was a total loss,” he said.

But Wednesday afternoon, Lukasik stood in his store, as drum kits and guitars were shipped off to a humidifying room to repair any possible damage from the change in temperature and humidity.

The store won't open until the new year, he said.

Spokeswoman for UPMC, Susan Manko, said it is still too early to tell what the facility's long-term plans for the site could be. Manko said they are waiting for a better damage assessment.

Dollar Bank is boarded up because of smoke-and-water damage.

Crews are repairing the interior, but spokesman Joseph Smith said the bank is waiting to hear back from the plaza managers, Indigo Management, on when the facade will be fixed.

Repeated calls Wednesday to Indigo Management were not returned.

Fire Marshal Gene Stouffer said the Allegheny County Fire Marshal's office has been in contact with the Indigo staff as part of the investigation into the cause of the fire.

Kate Wilcox is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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