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Mayor blames Stadium Authority exec for silence

| Friday, April 25, 2008

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has blamed Stadium Authority Executive Director Mary Conturo for failing to tell board members that a prime North Shore property would be sold to the Steelers.

Ravenstahl said Thursday that he was unaware of the issue until the Tribune-Review reported the concerns of authority Chairwoman Debbie Lestitian and other board members.

"I think that they have a fair amount of concern in that they were not made aware of it at all," Ravenstahl said. "But we were relying on the executive director to do that."

Conturo, who also heads the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority, declined to respond to the mayor's accusation.

Lestitian and Councilman Bill Peduto said they feared that 3.82 acres of taxpayer-owned North Shore real estate across from Heinz Field -- known as Lot 6 -- would be sold to the Steelers for $1 million, well below what developers and landowners believe it's worth.

Ravenstahl downplayed those concerns, saying the city did not agree on a $1 million sales price. A city lawyer, however, signed a legal settlement that mentions the figure.

Administration officials declined to comment on the settlement agreement when asked about it Wednesday. Only after the Trib published its story did city Solicitor George Specter respond.

The settlement "does not bind the Stadium Authority with respect to the ultimate sale or purchase price of Lot 6," Specter said yesterday.

Ravenstahl said any money the Steelers pay to buy the land eventually would be credited toward $2 million in road and traffic-signal improvements, which the team promised to make in a state Supreme Court settlement in November with Majestic Star Casino owner Don Barden.

Steelers Business Director Mark Hart said in a statement that the team intends "to honor their obligations and enforce their rights."

He declined to answer questions about the team's intentions for the land, which initially was intended as the site of an outdoor amphitheater.

Hart would not say whether the Steelers believe they have a right to purchase the property for $1 million.

One clue about the team's intentions comes from its developer: Continental Real Estate Cos. President Frank Kass said March 19 that his company offered to pay the Stadium Authority $1 million for Lot 6 -- at the corner of Art Rooney Avenue and North Shore Drive.

Continental has the exclusive rights to develop land between Heinz Field and PNC Park under a 2003 land "option agreement" among the Steelers, Pirates and Stadium Authority.

Kass said last month that Continental, on behalf of the Steelers, wants to pay the Stadium Authority $1.3 million for a separate 3.53-acre tract at the corner of Tony Dorsett and North Shore drives. Continental has proposed a 178-room Hyatt Hotel on that site, but the authority delayed approving the deal last month.

Kass could not be reached for comment.

Merrill Stabile, president of Alco Parking Corp., said he would be willing to pay $10 million for Lot 6 -- or 10 times more than what the Steelers would pay under the settlement.

He said a 2003 land-development option agreement given to the Steelers and Pirates has expired because Continental missed deadlines to develop specific parcels.

"There were some promises made, but those promises had expiration dates," Stabile said. "I think that these (land purchases) should go out to the open market and see what the market will bring."

Ravenstahl said he plans to tell Conturo to inform Stadium Authority board members about future, potential land purchases and clarify language in the consent agreement if all parties agree.

Jake Haulk, president of the government think-tank Allegheny Institute, said the Stadium Authority was set to be disbanded after Three Rivers Stadium was torn down in February 2001, but then-Mayor Tom Murphy kept the authority as a way of controlling development on the North Shore where the stadium once stood.

"Whoever is the mayor now treats it as a wholly owned subsidiary of the mayor that does whatever the mayor says," Haulk said, noting that the mayor appoints all five members.

The Steelers and Pirates appealed the Pittsburgh Planning Commission's approval of Majestic Star to the state Supreme Court last year.

The teams argued that traffic congestion created by the slot-machines casino would interfere with fans going to games at Heinz Field and PNC Park.

A representative for Allegheny County Common Pleas President Judge Joseph M. James, who signed the settlement agreement, said the judge could not comment because the land dispute could result in litigation.

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