Slow pace of Heights Plaza restoration after December fire frustrates tenants
By Braden Ashe
Published: Thursday, July 25, 2013, 12:51 a.m.
For several tenants of the Heights Plaza Shopping Center, attitudes toward the Harrison property's owners were heated long before a December fire ripped through about a dozen businesses there.
Some, frustrated with property management, fled the plaza in the seven months following the blaze, and those that remain are boiling over the plaza's sluggish restoration.
“This has been going on since Christmas,” said Vic Quinio, pointing to a labyrinth of chain-link fences and scaffolding in front of his barber shop. “The landlords won't talk to you. They like to keep you in the dark.”
The plaza belongs to Wild Blue Management of New Jersey.
Numerous attempts to reach the property ownership for comment went unanswered.
Wild Blue owner Steve Kogut contracted the Trafford branch of Disaster Restoration Services in December for the complete interior and exterior renovation.
Seven months later, DRS officials don't know when the project will face completion, but “conservative estimates” from foreman Ken Varga suggest mid-December.
Insurance tussle blamed
Varga said the renovations have been stalled by negotiations between Wild Blue's insurance provider and its claims adjuster.
“I know it's taking longer than people anticipated,” he said, “but if there's no money, then there's no work.”
Adjuster Don Schleicher of Castle Claims Service in Mt. Lebanon is handling the insurance claim. He declined Wednesday to answer questions regarding the identity of the insurance providers, negotiations with the policyholders, rate of renovation, current and projected costs or the settlement from the fire.
In a March interview with the Valley News Dispatch, Schleicher estimated $10 million in damages caused by the Dec. 17 blaze.
DRS crews are focused on J&S Pizza where renovations will conclude on Monday. The building's electrical wiring and heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems are being replaced while the floors, ceilings and walls are refurbished.
The pizza shop will be ready to reopen later next week, said DRS carpenter Fred Butbaugh.
Among the affected tenants open for business are First Commonwealth Bank, Little Caesars Pizza, Kelly's Nails, Family Christian stores and Quinio Barbershop.
Harrison Code Enforcement Officer Joe Marino Jr. said each of the tenants had to reapply for an occupancy permit to resume operations after the fire, which they were granted with no charge.
“We wanted to help the local businesses out,” he said. “These people have been through enough with the fire.”
When he moved his barbershop a few storefronts to the corner of the plaza in 2009, Quinio's new space was subjected to stricter construction codes than most of the plaza's older tenants.
He believes that helped preserve the space, which only suffered minimal smoke damage.
Marino said Wild Blue Management has never been cited by Harrison for construction code violations.
Other plaza tenants such as Harrison's Bar and Grille and AJ's Internet Cafe remain closed indefinitely.
State Farm Insurance, Drums N More and Dunham's Sports, who a leasing agent said was once the plaza's most lucrative tenant, have relocated elsewhere in Harrison following the fire.
Not able to wait
Dunham's Sports corporate management declined to comment, but State Farm Insurance agent Garrett Bogden said his decision to relocate to Freeport Road, near Highland Tire, was an easy one.
“Our business needed to be up and running as soon as possible,” he said. “When we were given a timetable on everything, it just didn't seem feasible.”
The insurance agent had several complaints about his former landlord, including an incessant roof leak that he said went unrepaired and plumbing issues.
He said a State Farm employee was hospitalized in 2011 after inhaling fumes that leaked over from the renovations done in preparation for UPMC medical offices in what was formerly the Macy's department store.
That outpatient care facility was operational for only a couple weeks before the interior was destroyed by the fire. Now, the medical office is undergoing similar restorations, according to UPMC director of media relations Susan Manko.
When it reopens mid-January, the facility will provide services rooted in primary, cardiology and women's care.
New look, new name
Brad Kelly, vice president of retail at Colliers International, said he anticipates several other new businesses to join UPMC in the plaza by next year. Wild Blue Management commissioned Colliers International in March as the shopping center's leasing agent.
Kelly said he anticipates a 25 percent increase in square footage within the next 12 months as the leasing agent negotiates with prospective tenants to fill the void left by Dunham's and others.
He would not disclose the identities of potential tenants or stages of negotiation, but said there's an emphasis placed on pet stores, restaurants and fitness centers.
“We're really excited about what the future has in store for this shopping center and its new image,” Kelly said.
The plaza is changing its name to Harrison Town Square as it undergoes sweeping interior and exterior renovations. Among the exterior changes made at the plaza will be new signage and lighting, complete facade replacement and landscaping.
The change in name, Kelly said, is designed to reflect the center's new desired identity as the town's nucleus.
“This is really the place where the town comes together,” he said. “We want its image to reflect the personality and character of the town.”
If it were to reflect the mood of the tenants, like one store manager who wished to remain anonymous, the building could remain as it is.
“Corporate doesn't allow us to speak with the media,” the manager said. “I wish we could. I'd let the landlord have it.”
Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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