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URA board members tangle over money to keep August Wilson fight going

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Thursday, June 12, 2014, 6:51 p.m.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, a member of the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority board, opposed a measure on Thursday to pay a Downtown law firm up to $60,000 to represent it in a dispute over the proposed sale of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

“I would hope we would hire a competent mediator to resolve this issue. This (legal battle) is a bottomless pit,” said Ferlo, D-Highland Park.

Ferlo said he opposes the goal of leaders such as Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to preserve the center's mission as a nonprofit cultural center.

“I don't know where the sustainability is,” Ferlo said, noting he opposed the project from the beginning and thinks money would be better spent supporting development of neighborhood cultural centers.

Board member and city Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle countered: “This is to protect our legal rights.”

Allegheny County Judge Lawrence O'Toole preliminarily approved a deal by New York-based 980 Liberty Partners to buy the center for $9.5 million and build a 200-room hotel above it. The group has said it would provide office and gallery space, and use of the building's performing arts venue to help keep the center going. The center has $10 million in debts.

“A hotel with an ancillary cultural center … is not what the public and the foundations invested in,” said URA Chairman Kevin Acklin, who is Peduto's chief of staff and chief development officer, noting the legal battle is an attempt to protect those investments.

“We intend to keep it as a public asset,” Acklin said, adding he hopes the legal matter can be resolved soon.

The motion to pay the law firm Clark Hill Thorp Reed up to $60,000 passed in a 4-1 vote.

Also Thursday, the URA voted to give a Philadelphia developer until June 24 to complete construction drawings and other documents related to its proposed redevelopment of the former Masonic Temple building on the North Side's West North Avenue.

Allegheny City Development Group LLC has development rights to the URA-owned building. It plans to sell the first floor to the nonprofit City of Asylum and use upper floors for eight residential units of one to three bedrooms each. If Allegheny City fails to meet the June 24 deadline, City of Asylum has said it will walk away — a move the URA said would prompt it to pull out of the development deal with the Philadelphia group.

Allegheny City is redeveloping the neighboring Garden Theater building, long an eyesore. It would house a street-level restaurant and apartments on upper floors.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or

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