Normally the negotiations to purchase a property from the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA) take place out of the public view until the details are finalized, unless Billy Porter is involved.
The Broadway and Hollywood star, along with local real estate developers Herky and Lisa Pollock, want to buy the Greater Pittsburgh Coliseum in Homewood to create a community space. So they approached the URA, which owns half of the building.
Then Porter started talking.
“Billy is from Homewood,” Tanika Harris, director of communications and community relations for the URA, told a meeting of the Homewood Community Development Collaborative. “He still has family in Homewood. Billy has come back to Pittsburgh many times. He is talking about this. Someone told me about it before I found out officially because he has been out here.”
Harris said the first thing the URA staff did was take the proposal to the mayor’s office, then the URA contacted Stephanie Durrett, president and owner of SD Transit, which owns the other half of the building that houses the coliseum.
The building, which runs along Frankstown Avenue from Collier Street to North Braddock Avenue, is a former trolley barn, where streetcars were stored, repaired and turned around to go back on their runs.
SD Transit operates school and shuttle buses out of the building. Durrett declined to comment for this article.
“We wanted to make sure we did the right thing by communicating with Miss Stephanie to let her know what came to us,” Harris said. “Now, whatever is going on, we are out of that conversation between Miss Stephanie and the development team, but they have been in conversation.
“So I wanted to make sure that is clear. This project cannot go forward without Miss Stephanie’s approval.”
Harris said that once the word about the proposal started to spread, the leadership of the URA held a meeting with “key stakeholders,” including Mayor Ed Gainey, representatives of Homewood’s nonprofit sector and members of the Homewood Community Development Collaborative’s board of directors, to discuss the specifics as far as there were any.
At that first community meeting, which was held on Aug. 3, the staff of the URA laid out the proposal to attendees and then told them to bring the details back to their circles so that rumors could be quelled with the details about the project.
“We had a very truthful and honest conversation about where we are. It took about 15 minutes before everyone realized we are really early on in the process. We took a lot of questions. We don’t have answers. So what’s essentially happening is we’re coming to you before we have a whole proposal,” Harris said.
Harris said the entire proposal was three pages long.
“There were no dollar amounts in there. There are no figures because they have not been able to go to the space to assess it. They don’t have an architectural team together; they don’t have all those things yet in place.”
“We’d like them to refine the proposal,” Susheela Nemani-Stanger, the URA’s executive director, said. “We’d like them to put more substance to it. … There’s a lot of conceptual ideas behind it and we want them to flesh it out. We want them to kick the tires on the building. They’re going to need to do that. They’re going to need to understand how much a development will cost.”
Kyle Chintalapalli, chairman of the URA’s board of directors, said during an Aug. 10 meeting of the URA board that “the proposal consists of an arts education component, restoring the roller rink, a culinary arts component, and workforce development and job training in the TV/film related professions.”
Chintalapalli said that the day after the meeting in Homewood to talk to local residents, the development team told the URA that Rachael Ray, a celebrity chef, is also joining the proposal.
“It’s a great idea, and it honestly checks off all the boxes that the community has said that they wanted in that space,” Harris said at the Homewood Community Development Collaborative meeting the next day.
But she stressed that the developers do not own the building.
“We are the owners of the Coliseum,” Harris said about the URA. “We are entertaining their idea, but we are coming to you to let you know. They are not a shoo-in because he is a famous person. They have to go through the same process that others do as well.”
Nemani-Stanger said the conceptual proposal was the first step, then the developers would have to meet with the community. After that, they will be granted access to the building, along with their architects and engineers so that they can get a sense of what the building needs and how much renovations will cost.
“When they send us an updated proposal with that detail we hope to be able to go to our board and seek exclusive negotiations with them. That is the first of four board steps,” Nemani-Stanger said. The last step by the URA board is to approve the sale of the building.
The quickest the process could go — from exclusive negotiations to opening the building when the renovations are completed — would be 18 months, Nemani-Stanger added, “That would be really fast.”
As for the use of the building, Harris noted that her son is a musician and involved in different arts organizations.
“What we don’t want is for existing arts organizations to lose students. This is not a competition for those same young people,” she said. “Billy’s team wants to partner with all of these entities as well.”
Nemani-Stanger also said that the URA is not precluding other developers from submitting proposals for the property.
During the URA meeting, Chintalapalli read from a letter that Porter wrote to the board that gave his rationale for the proposal:
“Performing arts was my lifeline, my safety net, and my way out. It gave me a sense of purpose and humanity, as well as tools for critical thinking and examining my own life and exposure to an entirely new world. It saved my life and enabled me to rise above my circumstances and to excel beyond my wildest dreams.
“The importance of this hugely transformative project cannot be overstated. For youth in crisis, an opportunity to succeed in life, to add vitality to a struggling community, to activate a site that is a daily reminder of how underprivileged and overlooked communities have been neglected, and to provide a path and a lifeline for a way out of harm’s way, all will be trademarks of this development.”