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Rehab work planned for crumbling downtown Monessen building

| Wednesday, May 8, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The City of Monessen will begin rehabilitating the old Health Mart building on Donner Avenue with the aim of it eventually becoming a restaurant and hotel.

Council on Tuesday hired Allegheny Restoration Inc. of Greensburg for a low bid of $34,500 to stabilize the building, which has shed piles of brick from the second story rear wall after years of neglect. The alley between Donner and Schoonmaker avenues is currently blocked off, as well as the surrounding sidewalk.

“We don't want someone to just come in, bid, and hold the building … we want them to develop it into a business,” Monessen Mayor Mary Jo Smith said. “That's another cornerstone building in Monessen.”

Built in the late 1920s, the three-story building at the corner of Donner Avenue and Fifth Street once housed a pharmacy on the ground floor and a number of offices and apartments upstairs.

The building has been a target of minor vandalism and now houses only pigeons. Several small trees have sprouted out of the facade.

City administrator John Harhai said they acquired the property via quitclaim deed six weeks ago from Dan Van Gasken of Miller Commercial Real Estate Holding Trust.

The city had to seek out Van Gasken of Georgia and he was fined for code violations earlier this year at a hearing in front of Magisterial District Judge Joseph Dalfonso.

A quitclaim deed is a transaction where a property owner transfers their interest, thereby terminating claim to the property.

“At the hearing, he said he didn't know he owned the building and the deed is in his name,” Smith said. “The building was falling down and he needed to bring it up to code.”

Harhai and Smith said R. Randy Lee and George Christo, consultants for the city's “Monessen Rising” project, were able to convince Van Gasken to sign the building over to the city, while securing $37,500 from Van Gasken for the stabilization project. Van Gasken, in return, is no longer liable if someone is injured by falling bricks, Harhai said.

Council in October passed an ordinance that would allow negligent property owners to be continually cited and fined.

“We weren't going to let it go and he (Van Gasken) was going to pay a lot of money in fines and fees rather than rehabbing the building, so the guy decided he didn't want the building anymore and deeded it over to the city,” Smith said. “Those two guys from New York (Lee and Christo) actually got him to pay the city to fix the building.”

Smith said there is a market in town for a hotel, mostly due to parents and families of Douglas Education Center students or others coming to tour the school.

First, though, comes stabilizing the structure.

“We have people interested in developing that building into a restaurant and hotel, but at this point, a quit deed does not give us entire ownership of the building,” Smith added. “What we want to do is make sure we stabilize that building. Then we will be able to proceed further to get a true deed for it and be able to put out an RFP (request for proposal) and see who truly has the best idea for the future of that building.”

In other action, council hired three part-time police officers to help fill shifts following the recent retirements of Chief Mark Gibson and Lt. Lloyd Aldrich.

Council hired Patrick Schmidt II of White Oak, Chris Tretter of Greensburg, and Donald Pope of West Alexander, who were all recommended by acting Chief John Mandarino. They will be paid $14.25 an hour.

Monessen now has nine part-time officers, but many are often not available to fill shifts since they hold other part-time jobs.

Smith said the city hopes to hire a pair of full-time officers in the next few months pending civil service test results and background checks.

Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 724-684-2635.