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.
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.