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Produce Terminal marked historic, delaying demolition plans

| Saturday, June 1, 2013, 12:20 a.m.

Buncher Co. officials said on Friday that they calculated someone would try to slow their plans to renovate the Produce Terminal Building with a historic building challenge, so they decided to take on the scrutiny as quickly as possible.

“We understood a local nomination was another step in the process that had to be addressed before exercising our option to purchase the Produce Terminal and to begin the first phase of our planned development,” said Tom Balestrieri, Buncher president and CEO.

Buncher consulted with the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the Strip District building's owner, and applied for a demolition permit to hasten the start of a historic building nomination process that could take three to six months.

Nonprofit Preservation Pittsburgh and a Lawrence-ville architect on Tuesday nominated the Produce Terminal as a historic building, a move that temporarily prevents changes to the building.

Buncher has an option to purchase the building from the URA for $1.8 million. Balestrieri said the company agreed not to perform demolition work until it buys the building.

Balestrieri said he's eager to move forward with plans to demolish 535 feet (roughly one-third) of the 1,500-foot-long building and begin work on a mix of apartments and shops dubbed Riverfront Landing.

That's so the company can take advantage of the hot residential market in the Strip District punctuated by conversions of former warehouses and factories into luxury living, he said. The Produce Terminal was built in 1929. An addition from 17th Street to 16th Street was built in 1931. That's the section Buncher plans to demolish.

“And we'll be restoring the original street grid,” Balestrieri said.

The demolition is necessary to extend 17th Street to the riverfront, where Buncher plans to build a plaza catering to pedestrians and bicyclists.

Other commercial real estate investors in the Strip say their plans are on pause while Buncher's project takes root.

“We have been pretty much on hold waiting to really see that this would be finalized and move forward,” said Aaron Stauber, president of Rugby Realty Co. “A lot of what you would design depends on what happens around you. You typically don't want to design in a vacuum.”

Rugby owns roughly three acres bounded by 21st, 23rd, Smallman and Railroad streets, including the Benkovitz Seafoods complex. Stauber envisions building a mixed development that includes space for a hotel and retail and residential development.

City Councilmen Bill Peduto and Patrick Dowd expressed misgivings this week about Buncher's demolition application.

Peduto, who won the Democratic mayoral primary, said he hopes to meet with Buncher officials next week. Neither Peduto nor Dowd could be reached Friday to comment further.

“I think through better communication and a little bit of compromise, we can actually get the project to happen,” Peduto said in a recent interview.

Balestrieri said Buncher did not try to hide the demolition permit, which the company applied for April 29. Buncher posted signs on the exterior of the Produce Terminal notifying passers-by of its plans.

He said Buncher has worked diligently with historic preservation groups, including Preservation Pittsburgh, to design renovations to the Produce Terminal that maintain its historic character.

For instance, Buncher plans to save the engraved limestone sign on the building's western end that says, “Pennsylvania Railroad Fruit Auction and Sales” and incorporate it into the renovations. Buncher has agreed to maintain the historically accurate trim on windows and doors and to build tree planters to give the building's surroundings a more urban — as opposed to suburban mall — feel and appearance.

“When the renovations are complete, the Produce Terminal will stand and function for at least another generation,” Balestrieri said.

Jeremy Boren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7935 or jboren@tribweb.com.

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