produce terminal meeting

A public meeting Wednesday night at the Heinz History Center to review alternative plans for redeveloping the Strip District’s Produce Terminal turned out more than 200 people as each of the three developers vying to replace the Buncher Company—which holds a $1.8 million option to buy the building from the Urban Redevelopment Authority—discussed their proposals and faced public scrutiny for the first time.

In the public comments which followed, Penn Avenue business owners, historic preservationists, and Pittsburgh residents expressed concern over financing, practicality and the future of the Strip as a whole.

Presenting the proposal from Rubino Partners, architect Rob Pfaffman said he wants to “take advantage of the gritty character of the warehouse, cleaning it up in just the right way but not too much.”

Rubino’s $19.4 million-plan calls for 40,000 square feet of retail, 13,200 feet in farm-to-table restaurants, 33,000 square feet in public market space, nearly 14,000 square feet in exterior dock space for farm and food vendors and an additional 21,000 square feet in common areas.

Melissa Ferchill, of Cleveland-based MCM-Ferchill Group, proposed a predominantly residential concept for the building at $35.6 million. It includes 209 rental units and about 18,000 square-feet of retail space. Ferchill’s proposal also includes two portals through the building—a covered, four-lane boulevard and two-lane road.

“We were challenged by the URA and Fourth Economy to incorporate more retail, so we actually have two proposals,” Ferchill says. “One shows retail components on both ends of the property and an alternative plan proposes retail running on either side of the cut-throughs.”

Chicago-based McCaffery Interests, which developed its proposal in conjunction with Strip District developer Chuck Hammel of Pitt-Ohio—they worked together on the Cork Factory and Lot 24—offered the most expensive and diverse of the three alternative plans. McCaffery’s plan for mixed-use includes 118 loft units, about 10,000 square-feet in live-work space, 25,000 square-feet in office space and about 35,000 square-feet in retail space at a total cost of $46.4 million.

While its plan also includes cut-throughs, McCaffery took slightly different approach toward creating them.

“We’ve provided pedestrian circulation at 17th Street, pedestrian circulation at 20th Street and a vehicular pass-through at 18th Street,” says Joe Antunovich, whose architecture firm designed the McCaffery plan. “The road will be taken down so that the terminal overhangs are not interrupted. We’d actually lower the road between Spruce and Smallman Streets so that we could keep in place the historic factors of the building.”

The amount of public money the three plans would require is unclear, as all presuppose some financing through historic tax credits. All of the plans divide the building in one form or another.

The Buncher Company’s plan for the space, which involved demolishing the produce terminal’s western third in order to create a large, publicly accessible “grand entrance” to the riverfront, would have filled the rest of the building with restaurants, retail and light manufacturing. At an estimated cost of $30 million—wholly funded through its own equity—Buncher’s plan remains the only one which relies neither on public funding nor historic tax credits.

After the three developers presented their plans, Rich Overmoyer, whose Fourth Economy firm is consulting the city’s redevelopment of the terminal, reviewed his team’s assessments of each. He touched briefly on Buncher, which did not present or have an official presence at the meeting. In summarizing his firm’s assessments of each proposal, Overmoyer flashed through slides which listed the specifics, pros and cons of each plan. You can view Fourth Economy’s presentation in its entirety on the URA’s website (assessments of the proposals begin on page 10).

Fourth Economy’s projections of tax revenue each proposal would generate over the first 10 years put McCaffery out front with an expected figure of over $14.3 million. MCM-Ferchill, it says, would generate just over $12 million in the same period, while Rubino would bring in about $7.6 million. The Buncher Company’s plan was not included in the projections.

Ferchill’s plan appears to have the most stable financing of the three, while McCaffery’s plan appears to be the clear front-runner.

Speaking on behalf of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, Karamagi Rujumba voiced support for the McCaffery and Ferchill plans, but reiterated the PHLF’s preference to work with Buncher.

“In terms of what we think is feasible and realistic, Buncher’s plan makes the most sense,” Rujumba says. “Our initial preference was that the building stay as it is, but as we went through it, understood the lack of utilities in it and saw the cost of what it would take to rehab the whole thing, demolishing that section makes the most sense.”

“I’m concerned that the city hasn’t really thought through the access and the integrity of Penn Avenue and Smallman Street,” says Dan Nolan, owner of Allegheny Coffee & Tea Exchange on Penn Avenue. “I’m very concerned that we’re going to lose the character of the Strip by not having free access—the feasibility of parking half a block away, getting what you need, coming and going.”

Preserving the vibe of and access to the Strip weren’t the only concerns raised. During his comments to the developers, Rujumba pointed out that each of the three alternative plans relies heavily—between 11 and 20 percent—on historic tax credits for financing. Given their plans to create portals and cut-throughs in the terminal, their eligibility for those credits is suspect.

“To punch holes in the building and essentially create three buildings doesn’t preserve it,” Rujumba says. “If they want to put portals through the building, it’s speculative if they think they’re going to get historic tax credits.”

While he didn’t express a preference for any one plan, Nolan sees flaws in all three and remains most concerned about maintaining continuity on Penn Avenue.

“Whatever plan the city picks, how are they going to keep that vibe going? If they develop all the land then people aren’t going to be able to access it and it’s going to die,” he says. “Pike Place [in Seattle] is unique, but it has a waterfront. There’s a whole different vibe there. At the end of the day, the Strip really shuts down at 6 p.m., except for the clubs on Smallman. How are residents going to like having a club across the street? It’s going to turn into the South Side, where residents are complaining about local businesses.”

Becky Rodgers, executive director of Neighbors in the Strip, says that while she would have preferred a plan that kept the building intact while still allowing for a grand entrance to the riverfront, she’s excited to get the project started.

“We look forward to hearing who the URA chooses and working with that group to make it the best it can be for the Strip District,” Rodgers says.

The URA and Fourth Economy are accepting public comments on the matter for the next week through the project website. The URA will take up the issue when it meets on August 14.

Matthew Wein

Matthew Wein is a local writer, editor, blogger, storyteller and proud native Pittsburgher. Once described as "a man of things," he covers city design, spirits and craft beer for NEXT, where he keeps all...