The Strip’s Produce Terminal: Now, isn’t that special!

Strip District, Heinz History Center.

5th Floor, French and Indian War.

A life-size, painted, period-costumed Native American tribal chief greets you upon exiting the elevator, which would be ludicrous in any other context.

Turn left towards an enormous unadorned gathering hall, with a small stage and a massive wall-mounted projection screen bearing the agenda for a meeting to consider who will redevelop a 5-block long, hundred-year old “Produce Terminal”.

THREE-WAY POWERPOINT FACE OFF!!

The URA was hosting this rodeo, and the URA is spartan and minimalist. The agenda would include ten minutes for each developer, some consultant and URA analysis, and finally 45 minutes for public commentary and questions at a microphone stand. There was ice water for a hot day and cookies signifying comfort.

Acting URA Director Robert Rubinstein was our emcee: he of the gruff, modest countenance and light touch.

“I guess that’s my cue,” he began once the lights came up.

“Yeah, it is!” heckled my neighbor from the audience, whom I had not pegged as a cut-up.

Sen. Jim Ferlo’s presence was acknowledged, as well that of staff from Sen. Wayne Fontana’s and Cnl. Deb Gross’s offices prior to the latter’s arrival. Mayor Peduto sent neither official nor high-profile representation, though folks at City Planning and Neighborhoods lurked on the periphery.

URA yeoman Kyra Straussman reminded everyone what has already taken place — a zoning change, chiefly — and what was going to happen, that on August 14th, the URA board will “take some action” on the Produce Terminal, and that action will likely be to enter into “exclusive negotiations” with one developer. Which will be followed by more due diligence and accountability, public input and decision-making opportunities.

Ready? Set? PRESENT!!!

RUBINO: A farmer and food truck row! Amish vendors! Closeout vendors — just like the stuff you get at Target! East and west retail halls! Restaurants! Current Strip District vendors! Incubator spaces: “extremely important to us!” 654 jobs! An inter-Strip trolley system! Passageways, and a 17th street drop off! Maybe a green roof walk! Yeeeaaaaargh!

MCM-FERCHILL: Apartments mostly. No public subsidy. A dull presentation, possibly a dull proposal. The presenter from Ferchill opened her remarks by saying how nice it is to be working here in Cleveland, and then she died. She really did say that, and then she died, there on that stage in the Strip District, doing what she loved. We will never see her like again, and now her watch is ended.

McCAFFERY: Apartments mostly, more amenities. Yes public subsidy, though not so much as a proportion as Rubino. Did attractive work in Portland, and elsewhere in Pittsburgh. Green walk-ups to the door. He foresees “architects, dentists, doctors, lawyers” living there as a vibrant community. Long window banks appear along the building roof.

The URA returned to dispense some of its analysis: that the Buncher Company’s proposal would see about 40% of the building demolished and provide a lack of green or any other interesting amenities and is therefore not preferred, that market conditions for the sort and scale of retail that Rubino is proposing are pretty challenging, and that those planning to capitalize on federal “historic” tax credits might be overly optimistic.

Public speakers by and large made pleas for retail and work-space opportunities, in better accord with what the Strip and the building has been and remains. Many seemed to consider snazzy residential re-imaginings to be unwelcome gentrification.

A representative of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation decried the use of public subsidies, to remind the audience that it had and still supports the Buncher’s company’s plan due to Buncher’s status as a solid developer and City partner, and again to warn against public subsidies. It seemed an unexpected message, coming from a foundation concerned with history and landmarks. Interesting!

A representative of Preservation Pittsburgh said that they find the passages through the building acceptable, and hoped to see some kind of blending of the Rubino and McCafferty plans.

When discussion progressed towards affordability of use, the Ferchill representative pointed out that their housing units would be more affordable than that of McCaffery, providing perhaps a younger more millennial demographic to capitalize upon things like incubators. For what is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger!

All developers endlessly reinforced their project as something special, that this building is special, the Strip District is truly special, you are special, and their project is special enough to make a special future.

My neighbor leaned over to me at the conclusion and said, “[Hogwash], [hogwash], [hogwash],” in summary judgement.

What is “special”? The Produce Terminal isn’t that special, it’s a five-block long, hundred year-old auction and delivery building. Completely utilitarian, now minus the utility.

Mailing out RFP’s, picking a winner and getting shovels in the ground isn’t all that special.

The Produce Terminal was built form-fit to service civic needs. If we can retrofit that enormous building which we currently own and which makes the landscape between Downtown and the Strip, and evolve it to meet a cluster of modern civic and neighborhood needs — including that of economic generation — then we’ll have to do it as a “we”. And that will make it doubly-special.

29 thoughts on “The Strip’s Produce Terminal: Now, isn’t that special!

  1. Men are from Mars

    Re: Ferchill. Kind of like that gubernatorial candidate coming to town and saying that her favorite Pittsburgh attraction is Presque Isle. But seriously, Ferchill is based in Cleveland, and she’s working for them, so it could have just been a nervous slip of the tongue. Maybe that’s why the PG and Trib didn’t go there.

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      1. Anonymous

        Love how McCaffery/Hammel are sticking the City for taxes on the sale of Cork Factory and then trying to get public money and assets at the Terminal Building. As the church lady used to say, “well isn’t that special?”

  2. Anonymous

    Buncher plan – with setback modifications they were said to be considering after public input, and with no public $$ – looking better and better. At least people have stopped running the “ZOMG – THEY CAN’T TOUCH THAT BEAUTIFUL BUILDING” malarkey. We can revitalize the riverfront and still have blocks and blocks of the Produce Terminal Building even after changing it some.

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    1. Anonymous

      I know, right? As if cutting a big hole in the building is somehow respectful of the historical nature of the building but demolishing the end of it isn’t. Sounds like this is just another example of people trying to scuttle another developers plans so they can get the project. Or maybe just another example of Peduto being more concerned with eliminating anything that started under Ravenstahl and bringing in his own people.

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      1. Brian Tucker-Hill

        Buncher’s plan would have chopped off about 530 of 1500 feet, so about 35%.

        Regardless of the exact percentage, of course, that is WAY more destructive than the portal plan. In fact one nice thing about the Produce Terminal being a former truck depot is that the awning/roof line is well above where necessary for even tall vehicles to pass underneath an intact roof.

  3. MH

    Does Buncher still want to create a walled-off area that blocks a whole bunch of the river? I don’t care much about the Produce Terminal either way, but the gates and all bother me.

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    1. Anonymous

      there was never a walled off area. Why do people keep saying that? Simply not true. The Buncher plan has something like 75 feet of easement to Riverlife all along the entire river for pedestrian and bike trail and a big public piazza that goes out into the river. Seriously, where do people keep getting their bad information?

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    2. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

      Probably anonymous comments.

      I never heard “walled off”, but I heard “gated”. Last I saw the discussion centered around how to suggest, “This is a private drive, car-wise, only for people who live here, but open to all pedestrians and cyclists” in the same sign. Not sure what came of it.

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    3. Brian Tucker-Hill

      The approved Preliminary Land Development Plan still allows restrictions to vehicle (not bike or pedestrian) access on the street-blocks terminating at the new riverside park, as far as I know. But Buncher will still need approval of any of its Final Land Development Plans (what it submits as it wants to start developing a portion of the district), and that is the sort of detail which could be part of the negotiations.

      Personally, I have no problem with the concept of restricting vehicle access on those particular street blocks to residents–without public parking, there is really no purpose to non-resident vehicles traveling those last blocks terminating at the riverside park.

      But I would like it to done in a nice, pedestrian/bike friendly sort of way (again, this is a detail that could be part of a FLDP approval process). I’d specifically identify retractable bollards as an ideal sort of technology for this purpose. Urban walkers/bikers are used to bollards marking off areas with restricted vehicle access, and if spaced correctly they are not an impediment to the free motion of pedestrians and bikes. And with the retractable ones, you can give coded access to residents and emergency services.

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  4. Anonymous

    Why is there such illiteracy around drawings? LOOK at the Buncher plan, blow up the PDFs really big…Read the PLDP that is full of holes. The flaws in design and engineering are there. The comments about the modifications are the height of ignorance…but of course without drawings for reference how would anyone know?

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    1. Brian Tucker-Hill

      Just so everyone is clear, however–any drawings in the PLDP documents are really only for illustrative purposes. The actual rules are in the text as adopted.

      And that is not the end of the process, it is just the beginning. Buncher must submit a FLDP for each section it wants to development, and that is subject to further review and approval. The rules in the PLDP are still supposed to apply, but those rules actually allow a lot of different possible outcomes in the FLDPs, including with respect to heights, uses, design, and so on.

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  5. Anonymous

    I’ve never seen or heard that Buncher’s plan would eliminate 40%. Sounds like someone is rounding up to suit their narrative. 30% was the number that everyone was using – or most accrately, the section to the west of 17th St. Have you every actually looked at this building, or been in it or around it? The nice parts are all on the 21st St. side. Buncher wanted to lop off the ratty end so that 17th street could be extended to the riverfront. Pull up google maps – this makes perfect sense. There is very little reason to preserve that end and instead cut through the middle one or twice. Hacking off the ratty western end is a much better means of preserving the overall continuity of the building while more generously exposing the city to the riverfront.
    I firmly believe that the “preservationists” that were still stinging from the spanking they took over the Civic Arena simply picked up and poured in around the Produce Terminal, irrespective of the actual details and merits. It’s no surprise to see some of those same rebuked preservationists involved in some of the plans now competing with Buncher. They were “walled off” from this new project, and Peduto and his URA have simply pulled them – surely people who have supported him politically – back in.
    All of these plans need to be refined, need to be more reflective of public input. I think we’re just seeing the various developers compete for the spoils at this point. In my mind, McCaffery should be firmly ruled out at this point because of their Cork Factory tax dodge.

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    1. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

      I heard 40% from Rubinstein’s lips, though it’s possible I misheard. Looking at the drawings you may have a point it could be more like 30%. Call it 35%? As it happens I live less than a mile from the building and bypass it near daily. The whole thing looks pretty ratty to me, but that’s the point of redeveloping it. “We must destroy the building in order to save it,” sounds like you’re saying. There’s no doubt that stuff like historic preservation and narrative are among the things from which Peduto built his following, and got him elected, so I agree it’s predictable to see that brand of policy coming into its own. As to the “they” you’re discussing: to my knowledge Pittsburgh has but one Guy Fieri of preservationist architecture in town, and thus far it’s not just he but his whole oeuvre that has been walled off from doing anything big. Would it be a disaster if “they” finally got one? You’ve got to admit, the Rubino proposal stands out from the rest, and by “rest” I mean the rest of everything we’ve seen. It’d be different if we had five different Crazy Market Theme Park proposals and his got selected, but in this case it really is a unique package we’d be securing. If we wanted to go that route.

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    2. No No

      Strange argument: If a group of preservationists loses a preservation fight, they lose the right to fight another day? So only a different group of preservationists can join the next battle? This isn’t single-elimination; if the Pirates lose to the Tigers tonight, they can still play the Nationals tomorrow. Although, if a developer cooks up a crazy plan and it doesn’t fly, I might be alright with barring them from ever working in Pittsburgh again. OK?

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    3. Brian Tucker-Hill

      It was about 35% (530 of 1500 feet).

      There is no difference in quality for the entire length of the main Produce Terminal itself. At the far eastern end it is actually a different structure, the Fruit Auction & Sales Building. But starting across from Smallman Plaza, about half way between the alley and 20th Street, it is the same all the way down to the western end.

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  6. Anonymous

    The Western end is “ratty” in the sense of its interplay with immediate surroundings. If you prefer to cut a path through the building, then the western end standing alone just because makes no sense. The eastern end is capped by the Fruit Aution and Sales Building and surrounded by more crowd-attracting Strip stuff. If you want some sort of continuity for the building, then take off an end – and clearly you don’t choose the end that has already been fixed up. Leaving behind a portion on the western end preserves virtually nothing except the limitations and disadvantages presented by the proximity of that side to 576 and to private lots.

    No one is saying that preservationists should be eliminated from consideration – merely noting that it’s strange to see them return, after excoriating Buncher for a partial demolition plan, to tout plans that also include partial demolitions. I think the original klaxon call to oppose demolition was thereby proven disingenuous. I’ll add that most of these people probably knew the whole time that the condition of the building was not good enough to support broadened usage scenarios, as the Public Market tenants found out pretty quickly. It’s not even good enough to get something usable while retaining eligibility for preservation tax credits.

    And hey – let’s get businesses on the tax rolls into newly renovated or developed structures…let’s not put more non-profit or heavily-subsidized stuff into play here. Let’s try and eliminate the developers who seem to mostly be angling for a shot at public lucre.

    The 17th St. cutoff makes a lot of sense – initial opposition had more to do with who was(n’t) involved at that point. I think subsequent machinations have made that much pretty clear.

    Reply
    1. Brian Tucker-Hill

      “Leaving behind a portion on the western end preserves virtually nothing except the limitations and disadvantages presented by the proximity of that side to 576 and to private lots.”

      First, it preserves the overall length of the Produce Terminal, which is its most distinctive feature. You appear unwilling to credit that many people believe that the portal plan achieves that end, but I can assure you that even if you personally disagree, it is a sincere belief on the part of many.

      Second, the existing commercial district in the Strip along Smithfield and Penn extends to 16th. The Penn-Rose building around the corner is slated for an apartment conversion. The Cold Storage building on the other side of 16th is slated for an apartment conversion. The lot containing Lidia’s is getting a new hotel. The Buncher PLDP calls for new buildings on both sides of 16th in the current parking lots. The Allegheny Riverfront Vision additionally calls for new mixed use development on the other side of the 16th Street Bridge, and in fact Heinz Lofts just announced they are expanding into the Services Building with another 155 apartments. In short, that end of the Produce Terminal is going to end up at the heart of a bunch of new development, and will be just as valuable as any other part of the Produce Terminal.

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  7. Anonymous

    You’re describing the perfect backdrop for a grand entry area to the riverfront, with the renovated PTB beginning at 17th st…in my opinion, at least.

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    1. Brian Tucker-Hill

      I can certainly understand why people like the idea of a grand plaza leading to the river. But you can still have that starting on the other side of the Produce Terminal–it only reduces the possible length of such a plaza by something like 20%, and in fact portals leading into plazas can create awesome effects. See, for example, the sotoporteghi leading into Piazza San Marco in Venice.

      Realistically, the only real reason Buncher sought to cut off the western 35% of the Produce Terminal is that they wanted to put a new building there (it creates development Zone C in their proposed plan). I don’t personally harbor them any ill will for wanting to do that, but I am glad there are other developers willing to take on reusing the entire thing.

      Reply

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