All eyes on Donzi’s Landing, at the intersection of Transition & Transformation

MTV’s Geek

Just when you thought the plot couldn’t thicken.

Buncher Company has long owned an immense tract of under-developed riverfront land in the Strip District right next to Downtown. It has a development plan that recently has been advancing.

The city’s URA owns a five-block long building right in the middle of it. A railroad also owns an easement upon it, and is asserting some interests. The river itself has a stake in its shoreline, and the People have a stake in both expanding Downtown and in keeping our best assets livable and fabulous.


The five-block-long Pennsylvania Railroad Fruit Auction and Sales building, which is expected to be a linchpin of a 50-plus-acre development on surrounding land owned by the Buncher Co., has been formally nominated for historic status.

Lawrenceville resident Sarah Kroloff and Preservation Pittsburgh filed a nomination for the building with the city’s Historic Review Commission on Tuesday morning, an action spurred in part by the demolition permit posted on it. (Tim Schooley, PBT Next Move)

Historic nominations take about a 3-6 month period to process. The Ravenstahl administration of today and the Peduto administration of Jan. 1, 2014 have different notions whether the Buncher’s present plans should move forward — or if these plans should be dialed back and re-thought with a business model reliant on more creativity and that is more sensitive to the wishes of others.

Ordinarily, this is just the sort of thing that turns to fisticuffs. We shall see.

P-G, Belko: Demo permits issued, railroad unhappy.
P-G, Smydo: Council approves zoning 5-4.
Trib, Boren: Buncher forgoes TIF
The Trib: Let’s Not!
P-G, O’Neill: Go for greatness.
P-G, Belko: 45% of Buncher stock now with non-profits.
Councilman Dowd: Lots of material.

37 thoughts on “All eyes on Donzi’s Landing, at the intersection of Transition & Transformation

  1. BrianTH

    The HRC only has 45 days to make a preliminary determination. If their preliminary determination is negative, their temporary protection of the property is withdrawn. So this could be a short-lived maneuver, depending on what the HRC does.

    By the way, I don't have any problem with relevant officials and stakeholders seeking to influence Buncher's plans in positive ways, but we shouldn't forget that one (regrettably) plausible outcome of the “Let's Not!” sort of opposition is that once again no development at all happens and these properties stay as surface parking for many more years to come. That outcome might in fact please some “Let's Not!” folks (e.g., people who don't want to see the Strip change at all, entities with potentially competing business interests, and so on), but it would be a criminal waste of this land from a public policy perspective.

  2. Bram Reichbaum

    Agreed. But just because Buncher threatens, “If you say, 'Let's not!', then we will never develop it at all,” that doesn't mean they're not bluffing… or can't be won over later once the City surprises them by presenting a good plan that can make a great profit.

  3. Conservative Mountaineer

    I believe those who want to 'save' structures such as this should be forced to put up a bond or such other iron-clad agreement to take care of said structure, including personal guarantees. Put their $$ where their mouth is.

  4. Anonymous

    I wonder how many of these good Samaritans that want to spend other people's money on this structure actually spent any time there PRIOR to the whole controversy starting.

    Agree with the Mountaineer, they should be forced to put money were their mouth is.

  5. BrianTH

    I vote against “surprises”. They own the land and unless you want to do a Kelo-style taking, they need to be a willing participant in any plan, and so we should be working with them, not trying to present some sort of “surprise” ultimatum. Of course there is a middle-ground between just rolling over and presenting unilateral “surprises”, and that is where tough but successful negotiation lies. I might note we already blew it with the TIF (losing a major component of the public's leverage).

    I also don't think it would be a good idea to assume leaving it as surface parking indefinitely would be “bluffing,” since they have done it before. In fact since they are getting revenue from the parking while the opportunity value of the land is likely increasing, it is always going to be a somewhat close call for them on whether it makes sense to develop it at a given time, or wait for an even more lucrative time in the future.

    One last thought–an awful lot of attention seems to be devoted to the part of the project east of the bridge, but that is by far the best part of the plan as it is. In contrast the part west of the bridge has some serious issues, most notably way too much surface parking, and yet few people seem to be paying any attention to that part.

  6. Anonymous

    So….we have pouring money down the toilet….we have a legitimate offer to take the property, turn it into a viable community project and take it off of the taxpayers hands….and our excuse not to demolish it is that we are maintaining it already.

    This makes as much sense as some of the excuses that government employees use to claim overtime.

  7. BrianTH

    I guess the argument is that preservationists who think an historic structure is providing, or at least could be providing, public benefits should be putting up their own money and not the public's money for maintenance of that structure while its ultimate fate is determined.

    Personally, that doesn't sound like a very sensible argument to me. People have a right to petition for public policies they believe would be a good idea, and we shouldn't start charging them a fee for exercising that right (in fact, put that way, it sounds rather unconstitutional).

  8. Anonymous

    Not the argument at all.

    The argument being — a legitimate offer with plans in place with no TIFs has been forwarded to take a property off of the taxpayers backs. Now, a group comes forward saying they want to preserve it as is. Let them go gather the money, make a counter-offer, buy the property and take it off of the taxpayers backs. Prior to their after-the-fact maneuver, there seemed to be very little concern for this “historic” structure.

    We can't simply keep putting every building in the City in the historic status.

  9. Bram Reichbaum

    “Surprise” was an unfortunate word choice on my part. However if Buncher *refuses* to work collaboratively with the City even as a lark, anything we present to them (even if we base in largely off of their own plans) from the minds of Rothschild & Donyo or the Design Center or whomever would end up *being* a surprise.

  10. Anonymous

    Some portion of the building will need to be demolished in order for the riverfront to be developed. Even if they knock down the western third of it…we'll still have a whole lot of Produce Terminal.

    Interesting point made above regarding the TIF. Without it, Buncher has less incentive to listen to what the city wants.

  11. Bram Reichbaum

    Often times I see or read the argument, “These historic designations and holding on to all these old buildings is holding back the City, we need to cut it out.” Does anyone actually have any examples to illustrate this widely alleged pattern? It seems to me we never let an old building get in the way of new development, and if anyone feels “held back” it must be due to something else.

  12. BrianTH

    Fortunately it appears Buncher is in fact willing to work with the URA, city planners, City Council, and so forth–in fact, I understand their original proposal had a lot of input prior to being officially submitted for zoning and planning approval. In that sort of context I have no problem with people coming up with specific modifications or other constructive ideas to propose to Buncher.

    Note, though, not every stakeholder will feel the same way on any given issue, so this is really a multi-lateral discussion. Just to give one example, I think the overall scale of Buncher's proposed residential buildings is a point of serious contention, with some people seeming to be concerned they are too big, and others thinking that at least the minimum allowed size is too small.

  13. BrianTH

    Actually, historic designation by the City doesn't mean a property can't be changed. Rather, it means exterior changes would have to be approved by the HRC, applying the factors enumerated in the historic preservation code.

    In any event, I don't see how that is much of an improvement on the argument I outlined. You are, of course, free to argue that this structure does not merit historic designation under the existing code, and for that matter you are free to argue that the existing code should be changed even if it does. Similarly, though, those who believe the structure does deserve historic designation (such that exterior changes would have to get HRC approval) should be free to petition to that effect. To the extent you are all just concerned citizens, none of you should have to pay any sort of fee in order to exercise your constitutional right to petition your government, one way or the other.

    But I guess what you are really saying is that historic preservation isn't a legitimate public policy goal at all, such that these people shouldn't have any means to further that goal other than private action. But if that is what you are saying you should just say that directly, not agree with CM's silly, and likely unconstitutional, proposal.

  14. BrianTH

    I guess the owners of the former Iron City brewery feel somewhat constrained by their historic designation, but that is a pretty lame example.

    Overall I agree–I'm not aware of City historic designation stopping many (if any) significant new developments.

  15. Bram Reichbaum

    Regarding the “rejected TIF, no leverage” equation… money is money. It's always on the table. Just because Buncher at one point said, “No thank you,” once it got its zoning passed, that doesn't mean money will lose its allure once the Produce Terminal remains to the City as leverage. If for whatever reason the stalemate continues, the City can always offer up a TIF to sweeten whatever development plan it designs based on what Buncher originally proposed (only better for the river and for the public).

  16. BrianTH

    I don't think that is quite right. Detailed planning (including architects and engineers) is going to cost Buncher money, and eventually they will start building stuff which also costs money. At a minimum, that means the price to get Buncher to retroactively change its plans in exchange for a TIF is going to be increasing. And at some point, most of the stuff a TIF would pay for is actually going to be done, and I doubt there would be an appetite to dig it all up and start over with public money just to restore leverage.

    Nominating the Produce Terminal might buy a little more time, but maybe not much (that depends on the HRC). But even buying some time won't change the fundamental fact that if you wait too long to try to bring back the idea of a TIF, it will be too expensive and too mooted to be plausible.

    By the way, I notice you are speaking unilaterally again about the City coming up with its own development plan. That remains a bad idea, and in fact I think at this point you are very likely raising false hopes among your readers about how this could plausibly be resolved, under any mayoral administration. It will be a plan formed with Buncher's active participation, or it will be nothing.

  17. Bram Reichbaum

    BrianTH, I believe you and I have different preconceived notions about Buncher's capacity to work bilaterally. You suggested above that they've done so to a laudable degree and are likely to continue doing so. I view having worked with the URA, City Planning at 5/9ths of Council in the context of 2008-2012 as rather more like Buncher working at a drafting table while a ring of cheerleaders chants, “Go go go! Legacy! Ribbon-cutting! Woo!” than making real concessions to any interest or anybody. Since I am not holding my breath Buncher is itself going to be pro-active in *meaningfully* negotiating any further (or indeed begin to do so), that explains my unintentional tendency to refer to some plan of “the city's”.

    Hope I'm wrong. I readily disclaim on a scale of 1-10, my expertise on this subject matter is < 10.

  18. Mark Rauterkus

    What has stopped many significant developments is the fumbling of the great legacy of Pittsburgh's Land Value Tax.

    Without the Land Value Tax, land can sit idle and speculators can wait, wait, wait. Taxes are nominal. And, if buildings are torn down, taxes go lower.

    Most here don't need the whole lesson, but just a reminder.

  19. BrianTH

    I'm not sure I implied the planning process to date was “laudable” (although I might note it appears to me an awful lot of people seem to be opining on the merits of the current plan without having looked at the actual plan in any detail–in fact I'd specifically say a lot of people apparently haven't done much more than look at a few renderings and read some second-hand commentary). But I do think it is fair to say Buncher appears to have worked reasonably well with the powers-that-be to date, which is all that one would expect from a rational, self-interested party. In that sense at most I think you can say that maybe the powers-that-be haven't done much to put them to the test to date, but that doesn't support your apparent conclusion that they have proven themselves to be generally uncooperative.

    In any event, my point remains that it isn't realistic to expect Buncher to go along with a plan they don't participate in making. So if you are assuming they will now refuse to cooperate at all in planning, then you are really de facto assuming nothing will get done at all. Which would be a shame, although again some folks might be angling for that.

  20. BrianTH

    By the way, I know this is your sort of argument, so let me ask:

    Can you think of a single example of a major development in Pittsburgh that actually happened without the property owner/developer being constantly involved in the planning process?

    There are many examples, of course, of property owners/developers successfully being asked to make modifications to their plans to address various concerns. But in those cases the property owner/developer was still involved, and indeed in primary control, of the planning even with respect to making the requested modifications.

    Conversely, I am truly unaware of a precedent for the scenario you are envisioning, in which a bunch of people not including the property owner/developer go off on their own and come up with a plan, then present it to the property owner/developer, and that actually being the plan that is developed.

    And if I am right that is completely unprecedented, shouldn't that be a bit of a concern?

  21. Anonymous

    No where in this discussion is there any recognition of the relationship between the Buncher Development and the characteristics of the Strip that attract people and businesses in the first place. There are many examples around the country of market districts that are successful precisely because they have rejected conventional developer driven redevelopment that is bland placeless and creates lease increases that force out the unique small businesses. Read one book to learn the lessons of Seattles Pike Place: Go to the websites of the Granville Island or New Orleans FrenchMarket. There are dozens of examples. They use preservation and small business incubators as the leverage for great new development but always preserve the authentic , often gritty core. This is not about one building but the character and economic base of the Strip. Buncher has no track record, is not collaborative and has frustrated every Mayor by holding the city hostage…Did you know that they sold the land on Washingtons landing riddled with PCBs and then sold it AGAIN because of hidden railroad easements? It would be great to see Buncher collaborate with innovative partners and local retailers. They have pushed the Public Market out just as it was getting started. They have intimidated business owners. They have presented an underwhelming master plan that could be easily improved if they were willing to listen. The Produce Terminal was built by the Pennsyvania RR and charged NO RENT to increase traffic thru their freight yards. There are experienced capable people and organizations that would love to make a competitive proposal for the Produce Terminal. The URA issued no Development RFP. Why Not? Yes let preservation-driven economic get a shot at this like we got downtown in the 5th & Forbes district. Had the preservation community not fought Murphy on that the district would be a waste land today. And yes preservation-developers do put there money where there mouth is everyday (see the work of PHLF, PMC, Heinz Lofts, Cork Factory) All use a 20% Rehabilitation Tex credit . If we listened to the preservation is bad policy crowd we would have torn down Bakery Square, The Ford Building, and Penn Station. Many advocated for just that. So the proof is out there both around the city and around the country that preservation creates economic opportunity, higher return to the tax base and a unique character that says the Strip, not anywhere ersatz repro crap. Walnut Capital gets it. Mosites gets it. SOTA gets it. Buncher does NOT.

  22. Bram Reichbaum

    Well I'm not sure, but what I was envisioning was more like the City / community comes to Buncher with a plan and instead of Buncher going, “Yes, great, I'll do it!” it at least says, “Okay, I see what you're getting at with this. NOW I'll collaborate…” The point is that the City has to take a stand before rationally self-interested developers as a precondition of their being willing to begin negotiating in earnest.

  23. BrianTH

    That makes no sense. If Buncher is hell-bent on refusing to consider your ideas (your premise, not mine), putting those ideas into the form of a plan shouldn't make any difference–they can just as easily ignore that too.

    In that sense, “taking a stand” has nothing to do with this fantasy of coming up with a plan without Buncher's participation. Taking a stand in any meaningful sense necessarily involves threatening to withhold something Buncher wants or needs.

    Frankly, I think I have got the real sentiment behind this now. A lot of people don't like Buncher, perhaps for good reason, so are indulging themselves in the idea we can ignore Buncher for at least a while and pretend they don't have a say in this development, which would be oh so pleasant. But again, they own the land, so absent a taking that is just a pointless fantasy.

  24. BrianTH

    By the way, have you ever actually compared Buncher's plan to what appeared in the Allegheny Riverfront Vision? There are some important differences in detail involving setbacks and the treatment of Railroad Street. But the general approach is very similar, and in fact a lot of what some people are complaining about in Buncher's plan is actually in the Riverfront Vision as well.

    So I would reiterate the point above. Another fantasy element in this plan-without-Buncher concept is the implied assumption there would be some sort of public consensus on a good plan. In fact, there are a number of fundamental, likely irreconcilable, differences of opinion about what should be done in general in the Strip.

    And so if you are hoping Buncher will have no choice but to bow to a plan with a unified public behind it, good luck with that, because a lot of the public will oppose any plan you can come up with.

  25. Anonymous

    First off – the current HRC is very…VERY development friendly. Ask the folks who were hoping to encourage the owners of Pittsburgh Brewing to stay within the letter of the law re. demolitions. Will the HRC help stymie the demo plans for the Produce Terminal? Probably not as currently composed, imho.

    Next – Bram, did you attend the public meetings that were held for the Allegheny Riverfront Vision Plan, or the Green Boulevard? I think people forget or didn't know that a LOT of public and community stakeholder and city input went into that plan. It seems to me that sometimes individual facets of ongoing redevelopment discussions stick out and garner wider attention, and then many loud voices are heard from folks who really know or care nothing about the other facets. Demanding that every brick of the Produce Terminal remain standing in the way of redeveloping the riverfront seems like one of these…to me, anyway. If people want to categorize the process as having taken place behind closed doors, then they are doing so in the face of plenty of documentation to the contrary. Public input was sought aggressively – in fact I really have doubts that they could have done a better job soliciting input.

  26. Bram Reichbaum

    No. I don't doubt a lot of public input went into the Allegheny Riverfront Vision Plan or the Green Boulevard. I think the question is, are we *applying* the Allegheny Riverfront Vision Plan or the Green Boulevard, or any of that input.

    Secondly, my sense is that fewer want to save every brick of the Produce Terminal than seek acknowledgment of its historic nature such that fair “mitigating” measures can be taken for its partial demolition – stuff like making sure the resultant development is of a suitable Strip District character. They want it so they can trade it, which is what the law clearly allows.

  27. Anonymous

    Reading over that facebook page…one has to wonder if there isn't a major undercurrent here – lots and lots of potential work for architects and design companies in the offing. Some of these groups are friendly with the outgoing administration, others more so with the incoming.

  28. BrianTH

    Again, I'd urge people to actually compare the Allegheny Riverfront Vision plan to Buncher's plan. If there was no application/input involved, then there were an awful lot of coincidences. In fact, I strongly suspect a lot of critics of Buncher's plan wouldn't be able to reliably pick out one versus the other if they were presented without labels.

    Incidentally, I think there is in fact a significant constituency for not actually doing anything significant to change the Strip at all, and if that would mean leaving the Produce Terminal untouched, so be it. I have no idea if the petitioners fall in that category, but I do think it is worth keeping in mind the “Let's Not!” crowd includes a sizable number of people who really mean just that and no more.

  29. Bram Reichbaum

    I just want to be on record saying that of all the reasons the “design community” has for objecting these plans, I really, really don't think it's because they have dollar signs in their eyes.

  30. Anonymous

    A good architect just like a good lawyer (altho paid far less) is paid to represent their clients interest. Those who are community oriented (and are skilled at integrating community and client tend to work with clients that are ethically aligned with their community values. It does not take too much research to see those alignments. Enlightened self interest creates better value for all stakeholders in business. Is architecture a commodity or something more with long term payback in value. A great building attracts more and higher quality investment. Higher quality does not mean more expensive, either. It means greater VALUE. Visit the website of the architects working for Buncher and then visit the sites of those who question the wisdom and quality of the proposed project. It is pretty revealing.

  31. Anonymous

    Pretty much all of the TIF money was going into the riverfront public right of way. A small portion was going into public streets and improvements, but the vast majority was to be used for the 75 feet of riverfront. I understand that Buncher even gave Riverlife control over the planning and spending of that money. That ship has now sailed and the public will not benefit from what could have been.

  32. Anonymous

    There is a good point to be made here though. Take a look at the issues now surrounding the Fire Department and purchase of new trucks. The complaint is that the department wrote specs so specific that only one or two companies could actually win that bid. This happens ALL the time in public bid contracts. This is perhaps the most rampant, but rarely discussed, form of bid rigging and give away of wasted public money. Here is how it works. in the planning phase (of oh lets say the North Shore connector) the right connected people plan the specs for each and every phase that only a couple companies can meet. They also spec out certain products that only a couple companies supply. They are all in on it from the beginning. Then, once they win the bid (and have an inside track on what the specs will be) they issue lots of change orders that drives up the cost. What is the public to do? Stop the project? Reissue bids? You can't, because the specs have already been set. Now, while not on the same scale – this also happens with urban planning. You bet your bottom public dollar that planners also build plans that use specs that give them the inside track and expertise to then get hired to do the actual work. When they don't get hired, they can use the plan to criticize the developer. Is this always the motivation? Of course not. But it happens. I would suggest a new rule that says the same firm that does the master plan is prohibited from then working on the construction of the actual plan. See how that flies.

  33. Anonymous

    It is really not a relevant comparison. With a few exceptions, most plans are not designed and built by the same firms.

    Planning, Design and Construction Management are not commodities like fire trucks. They are professional services that develop and manage a process. The specification for the materials and systems in a building but one tool in a process. The idea that a planner has a conflict of interest in construction is far fetched. There is general belief, depending on the project type(s), that a collaborative effort from Planning to design to construction is best (its called IPD or Integrated Project Delivery). This won't happen in public work except the largest or more complex projects in the near future.

    There are a couple of ways the Strip process could work if you could restart the clock. I have worked on a number of projects. In the end talent, transparency and collaboration are the key factors in a successful project.

    The zoning framework should be controlled by a collaboration of the community and government. Examples: Washington's Landing, Tech Center and South Side Works. While we might quibble with the details, they reflect a public/private partnership. In the case of the Strip, an RFP for the PLDP run by the local CDC (NITS) would have been the best. See North Side Leadership management of the Garden Block, Federal Street.

    FLDP which defines the specific design solutions should be the province of the Developer but with collaboration/consent of the community (example South Side Planning Forum) based on the agreed upon community plan. If there is no CDC or internal capacity, a consultant that represents the communities interest the way lawyers within an environmental law clinic might. For a project of large scale and complexity this definitely the way to go. When the project is smaller, the planning department's community planner could do this. This was the way it was until the city cut the department's capacity and in some cases shifted it to the URA. We need qualified experienced planners not people from other fields that learn on the job and really cant facilitate consensus.

    Its been over a decade since we had a planning department with this kind of capacity. It will take time to get a new people, processes and ethics in place. The Strip will be messy even with the best. Its stakeholders are not just the property owners (large and small) but the people of the region who visit and support its businesses).

    We have a good foundation with the Allgheny River Vision Plan and components of the Comp Plan. We need a process that brings key stakeholders to the table (business, landowners, experts in preservation, transportation and sustainability, etc.). This doesnt mean that Buncher is limited in the use of his property…they just cant have undue power over the city and adjacent stakeholders..Too often the have used tactics that hold communities/government hostage since they control so much land along the waterfront.


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