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Foundations reject overture from developer on August Wilson Center

| Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014, 5:59 p.m.

The head of a foundation coalition vying for control over the August Wilson Center for African American Culture said on Wednesday that he will not agree to a compromise with the hotel developer trying to buy the Downtown building.

The Heinz Endowments President Grant Oliphant — representing three foundations and their $7.2 million “back-up bid” to purchase the debt-ridden property — reiterated his staunch opposition after a two-hour private meeting with representatives of New York-based developer 980 Liberty Partners.

“There is no middle ground,” Oliphant said by phone. “We walked away with the sense that these are just two radically different views of what needs to happen here, and we can't in any way that is consistent with our values see us devoting philanthropic dollars to support what is ultimately a hotel deal.”

The clash suggests the battle over the August Wilson Center is becoming even more polarized and contentious in the weeks leading up to a Sept. 29 trial that could decide the center's fate.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O'Toole has approved tentatively a deal for 980 to buy the property for $9.5 million and build a 10-story hotel tower above the existing two stories. 980 has promised the center prominent signage, a separate entrance, a 99-year lease providing free use of gallery, office and storage space, event rental options and at least 120 days of use of the 486-seat performing arts center.

Oliphant wrote a follow-up letter dated on Wednesday to 980 partner Matthew Shollar in which he slammed 980's proposal for treating the center “as little more than a part-time theater.”

The Heinz Endowments released the letter to the media, but Shollar said he had not received it as of 4 p.m. He declined to comment before reading it.

The only type of partnership the foundations might consider is one in which the developer builds a hotel using just the air rights, Oliphant said. The foundations are adamant that a nonprofit entity own the property and occupy all 65,000 square feet of the first two floors.

“Our interest is in preserving the building itself as an iconic building and having a center that has multiple spaces and activities and controls its own destiny,” Oliphant said, “and that means a nonprofit owns its own space.”

The developer wants to share the space and use portions of it for the hotel lobby. Shollar has said the developer is open to negotiating “creative models” but cannot secure financing for an air-rights-only deal.

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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