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Can the Nonprofit August Wilson Center Also Be a Commercial Hotel?

Chris Squier
90.5 WESA

Whether a cultural center can also be a hotel is one of the questions at the heart of the fight over the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

This week a group of foundations made a case for their $7.2 million bid to buy and maintain the center as it is. A hotel developer, bidding $9.5 million, believes the two entities can co-exist.

A 10-story hotel built atop the glass and steel edifice moored between Liberty Avenue and William Penn Place downtown would certainly change the way the August Wilson Center looks. Grant Oliphant, president of the Heinz Endowments, believes it would also irrevocably alter the core of the center’s mission.

“It represents a real cultural asset for the city," he said. "It’s a great facility. It’s a great icon for the diversity of this city and the immense ethnic heritage of this city.”

In an op-ed Oliphant wrote in the Post-Gazette Monday, he also noted that selling the building would throw away a $35 million investment made by public, private and foundation contributors. Oliphant wants to debunk the notion that at hotel/cultural center combo is a win-win for the city.

“It will gut the center," he said. "It will architecturally change the center and will have very little space for the activities of an August Wilson entity to carry on its work. And it’s very unlikely to be able to attract additional support because it’s not really a center anymore.”

But Matthew Shollar with 980 Liberty Partners, the hotel developer, disagrees. In fact, he said after meeting with foundations in June they decided to heavily revise their original proposal.

“You know it’s quite different from what we walked in the door with in March," Shollar said. "And since no one will sit down and review that material, or heaven forbid participate in that process, it makes it quite difficult.”

He said they continue to beat the drum to get all stakeholders in a room to discuss the revised plan and to forge a compromise. Through their revisions, Shollar said they’ve found a way to maintain nearly all of the cultural center’s space while still allowing a hotel development.

“This building was designed from the get-go to have additional footage on top — whether it was going to be condos or a hotel, it was always perceived as being a tower," Shollar said. "And in our proposal, working with the foundations, that could be as small as possibly 40 percent of the building.”

Oliphant said the foundations’ proposal would make major changes as well, not to the the physical structure, but to its operation and management. He said that previously, programming and oversight of the property were controlled by the same entity — something he said is a tricky balance to strike.

“Our plan will have the building being owned by one entity that will engage professional facilities management, and that most likely will be initially the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust because they have deep expertise," Oliphant said. "And then a second entity that would be providing dynamic African American cultural programming for the facility and probably acting as its anchor tenant.”

Each side summons the city's past in making a case for the building's future. Oliphant said their plan is in keeping with the Pittsburgh’s artistic and creative heritage. Shollar said their development would be in the spirit of the city’s history of innovation.

“We see this an as opportunity to provide a really innovative public private partnership, to drive the center in a different way … We drastically reduce the cost of operating the center leaving it in all of its cultural space while providing significant revenue streams,” Shollar said.

Both the foundations and developer said they have the backing of leaders in the black community. 980 Liberty Partners has a sales agreement in place, and it has until Sept. 24 to close the deal. If it falls through, the building will be put up for sheriff’s sale in October.