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Lower Burrell warns owner of former Ward's shopping plaza

| Friday, March 29, 2013, 6:59 a.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Lower Burrell officials say the former Montgomery Ward and J.C. Penney buildings in Burrell Blaza, shown here on Thursday, March 28, 2013, are falling into disrepair.

Lower Burrell officials' patience with the owner of the former Montgomery Ward shopping plaza property isn't wearing thin, it's worn out.

City Solicitor Steve Yakopec has sent a notice of enforcement to the owner, The Widewaters Group of DeWitt, N.Y., stating that the two separate but adjacent buildings are considered “a dangerous building” and “a nuisance” under the city ordinance defining such structures.

Further, Yakopec's letter to Marco J. Marzocchi, general counsel for Widewaters, warns that failure to comply with the notice can result in fines of $1,000 for each day of violation.

Yakopec said the structure, which once housed Montgomery Ward and J.C. Penney department stores side by side, is violating at least seven or eight ordinances. He said most of the problems with the property were discussed at a Nov. 7, 2012, town hall meeting that he said Marzocchi attended.

“It's a lot of those same issues,” Yakopec said. “We sent our code enforcement officer up and we told them we were going to do that.”

“This has been the 10th year since Montgomery Ward left and I think it's about eight years since Penney's left,” said Councilman David Regoli. “We‘ve had enough.”

“Over time, we had obviously hoped that Widewaters was going to appreciate our position, where we had been and the concern by the community of the black eye that we've had on the city,” he said. “Five months later, nothing has happened.”

Widewaters bought the Burrell Plaza property in 2005 for $5 million. The property also includes three other buildings, one of which is occupied by a Dollar Tree store and another by a First National Bank branch.

Mayor Don Kinosz has been working to develop the 28-acre property, located at Wildlife Lodge and Leechburg roads, since J.C. Penney left in 2005 and left the largest building vacant.

He said the city was forced to take action because the building “deteriorated to the point where we are worried about safety.”

The mayor said the city actively tried to find tenants for it, which is well beyond what the city is required to do.

Marzocchi, contacted late Thursday afternoon, said Widewaters is asking for a hearing but had little else to say.

“All I am going to say about it is: We disagree with the city,” Marzocchi said. “We disagree with the city's position.”

A hearing date has not been set, Yakopec and Regoli said.

According to Yakopec's letter, the status of the 190,000-square-foot structure was reached because:

• it is not secured;

• plumbing has been disconnected and the water meters removed;

• the sprinkler system is inoperable;

• hazardous materials, primarily asbestos, are present inside and outside;

• the structure is in general disrepair;

• the state of electrical wiring is questionable and according to police reports, some or all of it may have been removed.

The building's interior could be more deteriorated than city officials believe, but that is hard to ascertain because of access, Yakopec said.

“We can't get into the building, not without an administrative search warrant,” he said.

As for what the city is looking for from Widewaters, Yakopec was blunt: “Fix it or sell it. What else are you going to do with it?”

Deborah Gestner, who has worked as a paid and unpaid development consultant for the city, said the size of the parcel and its relatively flat topography still makes it a valuable property that can attract development.

“It's actually more valuable with the buildings demolished and the land vacant,” she said.

Regoli said he finds it hard to believe that the massive, one-story structure can be salvaged.

“They would probably have to put more money into the buildings than they are actually worth,” he said. “We tried to explain that to Widewaters and they didn't want to hear it.

“It's a danger to the community, is what it is right now,” Regoli said. “God forbid that there would be a fire there. We are risking the safety of our firefighters, our responders, especially when there is not sprinklers system in the building.”

The asbestos in the building would compound the danger, he said, with particles of the hazardous material likely filling the air of the surrounding neighborhood.

“Widewaters is not going to put any money into the property until they get a tenant,” Regoli said. “Our feeling is that they are not going to get a tenant until they put money in the building.”

“That is a huge black eye on the city and we have to do something,” Regoli said. “If we don't do something, then are we doing our jobs?”

Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or tyerace@tribweb.com.

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