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Burrell Plaza owner eager to deal

| Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012, 1:02 a.m.
Valley News Dispatch
Deborah Golden-Gestner, a Lower Burrell resident who says she is a credentialed grant and funding expert, poses a question to a representative from Widewaters, the company that owns the plaza that formerly contained JC Penney and Montgomery Ward, during a town hall meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Valley News Dispatch
Marco Marzocchi, general counsel for Widewaters, the company that owns the plaza that formerly contained JC Penney and Montgomery Ward, speaks to Lower Burrell residents during a meeting at city hall on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch

Lower Burrell residents and officials on Wednesday noted the Catch-22 involved in redeveloping Burrell Plaza, the mostly empty shopping center in the heart of the city.

Marco Marzocchi, a representative from Widewaters Group, the plaza's owner, told a large audience at a city council meeting that his company is willing to work with any prospective tenants or buyers to build on or renovate the 28-acre site and its estimated 200,000 square feet of retail space.

But residents questioned whether any tenants would be attracted to the site unless it's in better shape.

Burrell Plaza has been largely vacant since J.C. Penney moved out when the Pittsburgh Mills mall in Frazer opened in 2005. Montgomery Ward, the other anchor store, closed in 2001.

The only remaining tenants are First National Bank and Dollar Tree in much smaller retail buildings.

“There is nobody who wants to see that place leased more than we do,” said Marzocchi of Widewaters, which has owned the plaza since buying it from Laurel Group and Family Drive-In-Theatre Inc. for about $5 million in 2004.

“We thought the property had some great fundamentals,” Marzocchi said. “We are interested in making it work.”

He noted Widewaters, which owns retail sites and hotels across the eastern half of the United States, typically has a vacancy rate below 5 percent.

Marzocchi said the sour economy, the rise of Pittsburgh Mills and the established commercial corridor along Tarentum Bridge Road have made it difficult for Widewaters to attract traditional retailers to the site.

Additionally, “big box” retailers are put off by the city's demographics and the projected difficulty Leechburg and Wildlife Lodge roads would have in handling increased traffic, said Councilman David Regoli.

That has led Widewaters and a slew of local, county and state officials to look at other development opportunities, including light industrial, medical offices and a mixed use of retail and residential.

City officials have directly contacted retailers and developers. Marzocchi said he has approached car dealerships. State Rep. Eli Evankovich said just Wednesday he and Marzocchi spoke with a regional health-care system.

The property nearly attracted the Cheswick-based manufacturer Millennia Group in 2009 before the company backed out.

“We're trying to help the owners make the site productive,” Mayor Don Kinosz said.

Residents skeptical

But residents questioned whether Widewaters is doing enough to help itself.

“That building really is getting to be unsightly,” said resident Charles Stapinski, a member of the city's zoning hearing board. “It's starting to look like a rat trap.”

Jennifer Bayer, manager of the First National Bank, said garbage and potholes in the parking lot are a problem.

Residents also took issue with boarded-up and broken windows and possible leaks in the buildings' roofs.

“Broken windows breed broken windows,” said Deb Kinosz, the mayor's wife and a Burrell school director who attended along with board President Scott Fisher. “Garbage breeds garbage.”

Marzocchi said he would discuss the upkeep and maintenance issues with a property manager who regularly visits the site.

Stapinski and others questioned why, if a big-box store isn't a likely option, Widewaters doesn't renovate the buildings into several smaller storefronts.

Marzocchi said without a tenant lined up, it would be premature for Widewaters to make changes to the buildings that would be expensive and possibly unsuitable for an eventual tenant.

Kinosz said one of the buildings will need asbestos remediation, which will cost an estimated $300,000. He said Michael Nedley, the city's code-enforcement officer, is reviewing the property to ensure it is up to code.

Evankovich and April Kopas, director of the Westmoreland County Redevelopment Authority, said state and federal funds may be available for fixing up the property, but a development plan needs to be in place first.

Deb Kinosz urged Marzocchi not to treat the plaza as a small cog in the larger Widewaters operation.

“It means everything to us,” she said.

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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