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History haunts developer Buncher's project in Strip District

| Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, 11:45 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
The landmark Produce Terminal in the Strip District on Tuesday, June 10, 2012.

Designating the Strip District's Produce Terminal as a historic building would likely sink a $400 million riverfront project, a developer warned Pittsburgh City Council members Thursday.

“We will likely have no choice but to walk away” if the designation prevents partial demolition of the building, Buncher Co. President and CEO Thomas J. Balestrieri wrote in a letter obtained by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

“We will be doing so knowing that we did all we could to advance a project that would benefit so many in our community. Will you be equally comfortable knowing that you voted to delay or stop this project in exchange for an uncertain future and to satisfy one group of individuals as opposed to the greater good of the community?” Balestrieri wrote.

Council postponed a preliminary vote on the designation until after a public hearing set for 9:30 a.m. Nov. 26.

The city's Historic Review and Planning commissions previously recommended the designation, though members of the latter commission chastised a preservation group for waiting until May to seek historic status for the Produce Terminal. The project has been discussed publicly for several years. Buncher has had a $1.8 million option on the Urban Redevelopment Authority-owned building since December 2010.

The nonprofit group Preservation Pittsburgh, along with Lawrenceville architect Sarah Kroloff, said they nominated the Produce Terminal as a last resort after Buncher applied for a permit to demolish one-third of the 1,500-foot-long building that once served as the hub of the city's food distribution industry.

Buncher has said the demolition would allow it to extend 17th Street to the edge of the Allegheny River, where it plans housing, office and retail development between 11th and 21st streets. It would renovate the remaining two-thirds of the terminal for commercial use.

Demolition critics have proposed establishing multiple “pass-throughs” to provide vehicle and pedestrian access through the terminal.

Buncher has said that approach would be far more expensive than its plan, expected to cost $22 million to $25 million.

“We believe it is highly unlikely that any responsible developer will be able to justify and finance the extraordinary costs and expenses of preserving the entire building without a great deal of subsidy or financial support from governmental sources,” Balestrieri wrote, adding that even if such funding could be secured it would “clearly alter the plans for access to the riverfront and the public spaces currently designed.”

If council rejects the historic designation, Balestrieri's letter stated, the developer would move quickly to begin the Produce Terminal demolition and renovation. It also would trigger a provision on the $1.8 million option requiring it to begin work on a residential building with at least 75 units within 18 months.

“Your vote to reject the proposed designation creates an opportunity to continue the rebirth of the city,” said Balestrieri, who could not be reached on Thursday.

Council President Darlene Harris of Spring Hill did not comment on Buncher's letter.

“The reason we have a public hearing is to hear from all people. I will wait until after that before I make any decisions,” Harris said.

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

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