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Grant awarded to demolish former shopping center

| Wednesday, March 14, 2001

Market forces appear to be taking over on the proposed Eastgate Commerce Center, with the release of more than $2 million in grants to demolish the relic of a shopping plaza Eastgate will replace.

'The response has exceeded anything I expected,' said Sanford Gold, executive vice president with CB Richard Ellis. The consultant has provided marketing and other technical assistance to Petra Ministries, which owns the 45-acre parcel of land which straddles Penn Hills, Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh.

Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey announced that $2.35 million in Community Development Block Grants are being allocated for the initial phases of the project, which will include spending $675,000 for asbestos removal primarily for floor tiling; actual demolition at a cost of about $800,000; and site preparation, which will cost about $875,000.

Roddey tried to put it into perspective, saying that the former East Hills Shopping Center has a hard act to follow.

'While this demolition will not attract as much attention as such other projects like the implosion of Three Rivers Stadium, in many ways this is just as important,' Roddey said. 'We have to remember that our strengths are in our neighborhoods and not just in bringing glitzy things to the downtown.'

He noted that the Eastgate project may well serve as an economic revitalization model for the rest of the country.

'We've established some priorities for economic development, those being the Mon Valley, the airport, and this project,' Roddey continued. 'This has to work. It's so important to the community, and we now have an opportunity.'

CB Richard Ellis is proposing the creation of 276,000 square feet of commercial and retail space, along with 24,000 square feet of business and professional offices. This is in addition to the 58,000-square-foot former Zayre's building, a structure currently occupied by Petra Ministries.

The configuration also calls for 1,785 parking spaces, not counting those for the existing KFC restaurant and the Firestone tire and automobile center, which will be relocated.

'We've been talking seriously with a number of big box retailers, including two major discounters, two grocery stores, and a home improvement center,' Gold said, adding that he is unable to mention names at this stage. 'Firestone is entering into a new lease and we're also talking to restaurants and a bank.'

With 12 buildings ready to be razed, the former East Hills Shopping Center has sat nearly vacant for 20 years, entering into an economic nosedive that coincided with the opening of the Monroeville Mall and the Miracle Mile Shopping Center.

If the demolition bid is awarded in late May, the razing could occur by late summer.

'This project has already been six years in the making, working to develop Eastgate into an economic engine for the region,' said Connie Balthrop, chief executive officer for Operation Nehemiah, the nonprofit affiliate of Petra Ministries. 'But I've also learned that real estate development is not a quick thing.'

Operation Nehemiah purchased the shopping center site in August 1999, with a $1.65 million foundation loan that was eventually forgiven.

In addition to the $2.35 million in grant money from the county's CDBG program, there is also money arriving from the state's Community Assistance Program for Operation Nehemiah. With $100,000 already received from the state, another $500,000 CAP grant is expected to arrive soon, Roddey said.

The initial grant was used primarily for the operation of the Imani Academy.

'For too long, Imani has been like an island all by itself in an area that's been challenged,' Roddey said of the school, which he said provides 'faith-based but quality education.'

Penn Hills principal planner Christopher Blackwell noted that a lot of residents still remember a thriving, quality shopping center from two decades ago. Petra's developers are working toward that resurgence.

'If all of the retailers we've been talking to decided to come in, we wouldn't have room for them all,' Gold said.

Tom Jewell can be reached at tjewell@tribweb.com or (412) 380-8516.

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