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Meeting planned to iron out hotel impasse

| Friday, June 29, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

The company that owns Pittsburgh's Westin hotel says it's willing to consider a more expensive, two-towered design if that will jump-start stalled plans for a 500-room hotel next to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Jim Richardson, vice president of development for Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises, said he'll meet in New York Tuesday with Rafael Vinoly, the architect who designed the Downtown convention center.

'It's a joint effort to try to resolve the impasse,' Richardson said.

He said the meeting will address whether more than 1,100 rooms will be split into the two separate towers envisioned by Vinoly or contained in the single, 27-story structure straddling Penn Avenue planned by Forest City.

'We're going to discuss the separate towers, the connections to the convention center, the entrance and the design' in general, Richardson said.

The hotel had been expected to open along with the new convention center in March 2003, but disagreement over the design of the $100 million building has pushed completion back at least one year.

Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey said earlier this week the two-towered design would likely mean further public subsidy of the hotel addition, for which taxpayers are already kicking in $18 million.

Roddey said he didn't like the idea of any public dollars going into the hotel project, but Forest City had gone about as low as it could on the deal.

Roddey said the $18 million subsidy 'just barely makes the project work.'

In his blueprint for the new convention center, Vinoly also sketched a completed hotel featuring two towers at Penn Avenue and 10th Street offering access to both the hotel and the convention center.

Forest City officials said that design would raise their operating costs by requiring a separate staff for each tower. They suggested instead a single, 27-story structure straddling Penn Avenue that would be connected on every floor.

But Pittsburgh officials - including a team of local architects hired by the Sports & Exhibition Authority's design commission - say that plan detracts from the subtlety of the convention center design and forms a barricade between Downtown and the Strip District.

In addition to pushing back completion by a year or more, the hotel design delay has prompted at least three major conventions to relocate to other cities, tourism officials said. The pullouts will cost Pittsburgh nearly $50 million in projected revenue, according to the Greater Pittsburgh Convention & Visitors Bureau.

'There's a stigma that gets attached to a convention center which then can hurt future business,' Richardson said. 'I would think you're starting to get a little bit of that now, if you're losing conventions.'

Gregor McGavin can be reached at gmcgavin@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7844.

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