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Burrell plaza agreement near

| Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, 12:16 a.m.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
The Widewaters Group, owner of Burrell Plaza, in September 2013 has taken steps to improve security and address alleged code violations at the vacant J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward buildings in Lower Burrell.

Lower Burrell and the owner of Burrell Plaza are finalizing an agreement to address alleged code violations and safety concerns at the largely vacant shopping center, according to city and company officials.

Lower Burrell Solicitor Steve Yakopec confirmed attorneys on both sides are crafting an agreement that would negate the need for an appeals hearing on the enforcement notice sent in March to The Widewaters Group, the plaza's New York-based owner since 2004.

The city in March deemed the former Montgomery Ward and J.C. Penney buildings to be a nuisance and dangerous. Officials noted violations, including a lack of sprinklers and security, the presence of asbestos, questionable electrical wiring and general disrepair of the property.

“It's still being negotiated, but they're making a good faith effort,” Yakopec said of Widewaters. “I'm pretty confident that something will get worked out.”

City officials and Marco J. Marzocchi, general counsel for Widewaters, said the company has made strides in recent weeks to improve the site and address the violations.

“We've brought the property into compliance,” Marzocchi said. “We're addressing all of the concerns and issues the city has raised.”

Marzocchi would not specify what has been done at Burrell Plaza or what the company would agree to do in the future.

“As for the specifics, until an agreement is hammered out, we'll leave that for another day,” he said. “We are working diligently with city officials to address the code violations. We're looking to be a good corporate citizen.”

What's been done

Mayor Don Kinosz said much of the recent work involved securing doors and other possible access points to prevent more break-ins and vandalism inside the 190,000-square-foot behemoth.

“The building is being secured,” Kinosz said. “We had a concern that someone would break into the building and either intentionally or unintentionally cause a fire. We don't want to see that happen because it's in very close proximity to neighborhoods.”

Kinosz said the company also secured or removed old signs that the city feared were a safety hazard, especially at the Wards building. He said Widewaters made general cosmetic repairs to the exterior.

The city wants regular inspections at the site to ensure it remains secure and stable, Kinosz said.

They also want periodic reports on the condition of the asbestos in the buildings.

Eye on asbestos

A concern is that the asbestos could become “friable” — or be reduced to loose particles — that could become airborne and cause a respiratory risk.

Kinosz and Yakopec said the city may not be able to force the company to bring the sprinkler system up to code while the buildings are empty. Kinosz said national fire codes do not require operable fire-suppression systems for vacant structures.

“It looks better,” said Jennifer Bayer, assistant vice president of the First National Bank branch at Burrell Plaza. FNB and Dollar Tree are the only tenants still in business in the Leechburg Road shopping plaza.

“They did some minor façade improvements,” said Bayer, who noticed some painting and boarding up of garage bays at the former Wards auto center. “I'm happy. It doesn't look as hideous.”

However, Bayer said she wishes Widewaters would repave the parking lot, an issue she brought up last November during a community meeting with Marzocchi and community leaders about the state of the plaza.

Although FNB has repaved the area immediately around its building, Bayer said customers still must drive through or around potholes in the larger parking lot to access the bank.

“The parking lot is still a mess,” she said.

New tenants sought

Kinosz noted that even while city officials were citing and negotiating with Widewaters on the code issues, they continued to work to find new tenants or developers for Burrell Plaza.

“We have not lessened our effort to help Widewaters find occupants for the building or find someone who would be interested in purchasing the site,” Kinosz said. “We have a responsibility for public safety. At the same time, we want to make sure we have a very productive business community.”

Kinosz said he'll continue to work closely with the company, just as he has with J.J. Gumberg Co., owner of nearby Hillcrest Shopping Center, and the Altoona-based BT Group that redeveloped Crossroads Plaza and brought in Sheetz at the corner of Leechburg and Craigdell roads.

Marzocchi said there has been movement in the effort to redevelop Burrell Plaza, but “Nothing I'm ready to talk about at this point.”

The Montgomery Ward building has been vacant since 2001 when the company went out of business. The adjacent building has been empty since 2005 when J.C. Penney moved operations to the new Pittsburgh Mills mall in Frazer, just a year after Widewaters bought the plaza for about $5 million.

“It would be fabulous for the bank if we had some new tenants in there,” Bayer said. “It would benefit all of us — all of the businesses along Leechburg Road and the whole community.”

Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or lhayes@tribweb.com.

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