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Steelers

Steelers, partners talk tough on parking lot

| Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011

The Steelers and its North Shore development partnership threatened to sue Merrill Stabile, owner of Alco Parking Corp., if he doesn't "immediately cease and desist" from talking about buying a North Shore parking lot that the Steelers have an option to buy.

By offering more than the Steelers would pay under an option agreement with the Stadium Authority, and talking to the news media, Stabile has engaged in tortious interference, according to a letter sent on Monday from a Steelers' attorney to Stabile.

"Your many statements to the media over the past week concerning the parcels, including, but not limited to, your claim that details of your alleged proposal will be released this week, also rise to the level of tortious interference with existing and/or prospective contractual relationships," wrote John Barbour, CEO of Downtown law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC.

Steelers President Art Rooney II is an attorney with the firm.

The letter was copied to Rooney, Stadium Authority Executive Director Mary Conturo, Pirates President Frank Coonelly and Barry Ford, president of development for Continental Real Estate Cos., of Columbus, Ohio. The Steelers, Pirates and Continental are partners in North Shore Developers LP, which purchased land between Heinz Field and PNC Park owned by the authority and built two office buildings, a hotel and a concert venue.

Stabile's offer of $10 million is 10 times the $1 million North Shore Developers can purchase the 3.3 acre lot for under its option agreement with the authority. That agreement expires Oct. 12.

"If you fail to immediately cease and desist from engaging in such interfering activities, the Steelers and NSD have authorized us to pursue legal action against you," Barbour states.

Burt Lauten, a Steelers spokesman, declined to comment.

Two legal experts, questioned on whether the Steelers and North Shore Developers have a legitimate case, offered doubts.

University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Anita Allen, an expert on torts, or non-criminal wrongdoing, said Stabile would have to do something more than simply offer a better price for the Steelers to bring a case of tortious interference.

"The tort of wrongful interference would normally apply when a party used some illegal act to cause another party to renege on a business arrangement or not enter a business arrangement," Allen said. In this case, she said, "I'm just not seeing it."

She added that claims of wrongful interference rarely go to trial and usually are used as a threat.

University of Pittsburgh Law School professor Pat Chew said an illegal act isn't required to prove interference. A third party must only intentionally break up a contract between two other parties. But if the contract with the Steelers expires this month, then it will be difficult to argue tortious interference, Chew said.

"If they're at that point in time when the Steelers and the city don't have a viable agreement, you wouldn't have a strong case for interference, because there's nothing to interfere with," she said.

Stabile, who has said he wants to build a 10-story office tower on the 3.3-acre parking lot beside concert venue Stage AE, told the Tribune-Review on Tuesday that he hasn't engaged in any illegal activity and isn't seeking to have the authority end the Steelers option prematurely.

"This is an honest pursuit of a piece of property," he said. Stabile said his offer to the authority is, "Before you extend their option, please consider that this is another option that's available."

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl last week shot down Stabile's offer, saying he sees no reason to switch developers for the North Shore property. While Ravenstahl isn't involved in the decision of the stadium authority, he appoints authority board members.

So threats of lawsuits may be moot, said Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute, a think tank in Castle Shannon. "If the mayor doesn't want the stadium authority to sell the property (to Stabile), then it doesn't matter," he said.

North Shore Developers "fully intends" to exercise its option for the parking lot Stabile has offered to buy, Barbour's letter states.

"To date, the partners of NSD have invested tens of millions of dollars in successfully developing numerous parcels of land on the North Shore pursuant to the option agreement," Barbour writes. "The Steelers and NSD are proud of those development efforts, which have taken place in less-than-optimal financial times and have to date yielded quality, signature improvements on the North Shore."

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