After years of hurdles, Pittsburgh's Garden Theater project on cusp of taking off

Aaron Aupperlee
| Sunday, June 30, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Had Wayne Zukin taken the easy route, he would have knocked down the North Side's Garden Theater and Masonic Temple and started from scratch.

But he didn't.

After years of false starts, hesitant tenants and hurdles to clear with city review boards, the $7 million project to redevelop the former X-rated movie house and adjoining temple on West North Avenue appears on the cusp of starting.

“If this was a straight market-deal project, the buildings should all be torn down and scrapped,” said Zukin, whose Philadelphia firm partnered with Pittsburgh-based developer Craig Totino for the project. “Our goal is to restore the historic fabric of the block.”

The Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, which bought the theater in 2007 for $1.1 million and spent millions more to acquire other buildings in the area, approved the sale of and financing for the theater and temple in early June. Developers hope to close on the properties by the end of July, Zukin said. Construction will start soon after that.

“This project has gone through a lot of different turns,” said Rebecca Davidson-Wagner, manager of economic development at the URA. “It really is time. It's time for the Garden and for the Masonic to realize their full potential.”

The process should move fairly quickly from this point, said Peter Sukernek, general manager and vice president of Howard Hanna Commercial, who is not involved in the project. Diligent in shepherding the project, the URA would not sell the property unless the developer had everything in order, Sukernek said.

Inside the theater and temple, paint peels off the walls in dinner-plate-size flakes, but the grandeur of the buildings remains. Intricate molding tops door frames and walls. Rich hardwood floors lie under a decade of grime. Large arched windows on the upper floors of the temple will offer stunning views of Downtown when fitted with new glass.

“I didn't think it would take this long,” said Zukin, who became involved in 2011 when the first developer abandoned the project.

Early anchor tenants — the East End Food Co-op in Point Breeze and Nakama, a South Side Japanese steakhouse and sushi bar — dropped out after publicized announcements.

The food co-op pulled out, in part, because a market study showed the store would do about a third of the business of its East Liberty location, said Heather Hackett, its marketing and member services manager. Hackett and the rest of the co-op's management team were not in place at the time of the decision.

Bob Gomes, owner of Nakama, did not return calls for comment.

“We've had some challenges convincing folks that the North Side is really going through the renaissance that we think it is,” Zukin said.

The project dragged as developers worked to secure tax credits and win approval of their plans, said David Shlapak, development committee chair of the Allegheny City Central Association, a community liaison to the project.

Plans went back and forth between developers and the URA, Shlapak said. City Council, the city's Historic Review Commission and state and federal review commissions had to sign off.

“All the behind-the-scenes stuff is pretty much complete, and all that's left is signing on the dotted line and putting shovels in the ground,” Shlapak said.

Domenic Branduzzi, owner of Piccolo Forno in Lawrenceville, will move into the Garden Theater, transforming it into Il Giardino, an Italian restaurant complete with a bar and wood-fired pizza oven. The back third of the theater will be demolished to create an outdoor patio, Branduzzi said.

City of Asylum, a North Side nonprofit that provides sanctuary to exiled or politically oppressed writers, will knock down walls separating the storefronts of the temple and open Alphabet City, a restaurant, bar, performance space, literary center and bookstore. The upper floors will become eight apartments.

“My sense is that we're really a key tenant,” said Henry Reese, co-founder and president of City of Asylum. “We're the anchor there that ties the community to the project in a noncommercial way.”

Branduzzi and Reese look forward to occupying spaces. There's pressure, they said, but opportunity.

“I'm excited about a new chapter,” Branduzzi said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or

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