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Strip District development moves closer to fruition

| Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 6:06 p.m.

Plans for a $400 million development in the Strip District cleared two major hurdles in recent days.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Robert L. Colville on Wednesday denied the Allegheny Valley Railroad's request for an injunction that would have stopped the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority from selling the Strip's landmark Produce Terminal to the Buncher Co.

The federal Surface Transportation Board on April 19 reversed a 2010 ruling that the railroad had an easement across part of Buncher's property behind the terminal building.

Both issues were holding up Buncher's plans to develop 55 acres of vacant land it owns for offices, residences and retail establishments. A second suit the railroad filed in county court challenging Pittsburgh's creation of a special zoning district for the Buncher project is still pending.

“This is just another stone out of my shoe,” said Thomas J. Balestrieri, Buncher's president and CEO.

Downtown attorney Jonathan Kamin said the railroad is considering an appeal. He declined comment on the transportation board case, referring questions to Ebensburg attorney Richard Wilson, who did not return a call.

“We're certainly disappointed in (Colville's) decision, particularly when we believe the evidence supported that the URA has purposely and willfully made every effort to injure this company and ignore our property rights,” Kamin said.

URA officials lauded the rulings as critical steps.

“It does mean that we are going to continue to move forward in turning acres of vacant parking lots into new housing and economic opportunities,” URA board Chairman Yarone Zober said.

The railroad's suit contended the URA violated a 1981 agreement that required it to make “best efforts” to preserve the terminal building for “rail-oriented use.”

In 2009, the railroad successfully argued before the transportation board that a rail easement running through Buncher's property between 16th and 21st streets remained available for the railroad's use.

The board reversed its decision upon appeal by Buncher.

Buncher's project, which Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has strongly supported, calls for housing, office and retail space between 11th and 21st streets. The company also wants to demolish a third of the terminal building to create space for a street that would permit access to the Allegheny River.

Opponents such as Councilman Patrick Dowd have criticized the project as detrimental to the neighborhood known for gritty wholesale establishments and quirky retail shops specializing in popcorn, imported meats, cheeses and more.

They also contend the project does not provide enough green space along the riverfront.

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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