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Politics & Government

In a Preliminary Vote, City Council Denies Historic Status to Produce Terminal

Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Deb Gross’s controversial bill to designate the Strip District’s Fruit Auction & Sales Building as a historic structure was voted down in a committee meeting today.

Ahead of the vote, Gross made her case for the building one final time.

“It really makes the Strip District, the Strip District. It’s a defining location,” said Gross. “If you’re talking about where to meet, where to park, where to go. When you picture the Strip District in your mind, you see this building in your mind’s eye.”

Gross, Bruce Kraus, and Natalia Rudiak voted in favor of historic designation, while Rev. Ricky Burgess, Daniel Lavelle, Corey O’Connor, and Theresa Kail-Smith all voted against it. Dan Gilman and Darlene Harris abstained from the vote.

Rudiak said she viewed the vote through the lens of historic structures that had been demolished in her own district. The councilwoman lamented the loss of historic mansions along Brownsville Road, and said she was reminded of the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi” whenever she drove by.

“They tore down paradise and put up a parking lot,” said Rudiak. “I’ve seen that over and over and over again in the neighborhoods that I represent. Where, again, we’ve had really amazing historic buildings that have been torn down for asphalt and strip malls.”

O’Connor said his no vote wasn’t a dismissal of the produce terminal’s historic value, but that he was concerned with “leaving other options open to developers that are going to be presented to the city and the new administration.”

In his few short days in office Mayor Bill Peduto and his team have already become involved in the Strip District redevelopment.

Peduto’s Chief of Staff, Kevin Acklin, said he’ll be holding weekly meetings with the Buncher Company and other interested parites.

“I think the results of the first meeting were that we agreed to discuss the open issues with respect to the design, understanding that the Buncher company’s concern, primarily with respect to its riverfront development, is access and not having a wall of a dilapidated building there,” said Acklin.

Buncher has the option to purchase the building from the URA until the end of 2015, and currently is working on a plan to create a mixed-use riverfront development on the site. The URA has said that historic preservation is already built into the agreement they have with Buncher, and that historic designation would only slow the development process.

Burgess justified his no vote by saying that he couldn’t in good conscience put construction and development limitations on the building because the current owner, Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, is against historic designation.

He went on to say that the process of historic designation should be altered, suggesting that the city come up with a list of all its potentially historic structures. Burgess said current owners of buildings on that list could be “grandfathered in,” and that a historic designation would take effect only when the building changes hands.

“Hopefully we’ll change this process so this council is not put in this position … again, so we (don’t) become the arbiters of historic review and property rights,” said Burgess.

Sarah Quinn, Preservation Planner for the city, said they do plan to perform an architectural survey of the city’s buildings, contingent on grant funding.

Gross said she was disappointed by the vote, but not surprised. She also said she’s confident that the Peduto and his team will do everything they can to safely preserve the structure.

“There is actually talking that’s going on between a visionary mayoral administration and the Buncher Company,” said Gross. “A month ago that wasn’t true.”

The legislation will come up for a final vote at the full council meeting on Tuesday.