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State review expected to hold up Strip District development

| Wednesday, May 18, 2011, 12:00 p.m.

It will be months before shoppers in the Strip District see any changes at the Pennsylvania Produce Terminal now that state officials are reviewing a request to demolish part of the historic building, a neighborhood leader said.

The Buncher Co. wants to level the portion of the building near the 16th Street Bridge to extend 17th Street toward the Allegheny River and provide better access to 35 acres the developer owns between the terminal and the Allegheny River. The company wants to develop that site, which the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh owns. The URA sees the Buncher plan as the first step toward reviving six miles of riverfront.

Buncher CEO Tom Balasteri said the demolition request -- for a portion of the Smallman Street building that is not part of the original historic structure -- was sent to the state Historical & Museum Commission about 10 days ago. The commission must sign off on any changes to historic properties that get federal funding and is required to reply to the request within 30 days. But it doesn't have to provide a ruling in that time frame.

"The plan is moving along, but more than likely it will be months before anything happens," said Becky Rodgers, executive director of the group Neighbors in the Strip. "But this could spur a lot of new development."

The approval is necessary before Buncher Co. can buy the building from the URA, relocate tenants and start demolition. The URA purchased the building, which dates to the 1920s, with federal money in the 1980s and leased it to Buncher in December with the option to sell.

The demolition would require relocating wholesalers and the Pittsburgh Public Market, which was added to the 16th Street end of the building last year at a cost of $1.3 million in city, state, federal and foundation grants.

Rob Stephany, URA executive director, referred all questions to the Buncher Co. and would not comment on the process. Officials at the Historical & Museum Commission did not return calls for comment.

Wholesale businesses occupy about 75 percent of the building and could be relocated to the renovated space or moved with URA assistance to other locations in the Strip District or Lawrenceville, Rodgers said.

"We want to keep them in the Strip, if possible, because the produce is the flavor and history of the Strip District," she said.

The Public Market would move to the 21st Street end of the building adjacent to the Society for Contemporary Craft. The move could give the market more space for vendors and features such as a demonstration kitchen, Rodgers said.

"It would allow us to expand the market from 10,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet," Rodgers said. "When people come to the market, they most often say they wish it was bigger and had more vendors. That's what people want, and this would allow us to do that."

According to concept plans, the developer would build at least 75 apartments along the water and an office and retail building along Smallman Street next to the bridge.

The remaining five blocks of the terminal would be renovated and updated as either modern warehouse space or retail and restaurants, said Michael E. Kutzer, director of business development for Buncher.

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