Pittsburgh’s URA Wants To Buy The Hill District Shop ‘N Save Plaza

Nov 15, 2019

The future of the Shop ’n Save plaza in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood will be decided by the public, the board of the Urban Redevelopment Authority voted on Thursday. The agency will try to buy the mostly vacant Centre Heldman Plaza, which requires paying off the mortgage and back taxes.

The URA must step in, said Sam Williamson, URA board chair.

“Dollar Bank, which is sitting on a mortgage which is in default, will foreclose on that mortgage,” he said. “And begin the process … of seeking another buyer at whatever the highest bid is.”

But because the URA was a lender on the project originally, the agency can step in and offer another outcome, said Kate Wrenshall, URA senior counsel.

“Now we can have a community process surrounding the property,” she said.

The greater Hill District is poised for millions of dollars of investment in the coming years with the redevelopment of the Lower Hill and the former Civic Arena site. Community members worry the shopping center site could become market-rate apartments and raise prices in the neighborhood.

Worse still would be for the site to “fall into the hands of the speculator,” said Robert Rubinstein, the URA’s director of special projects, and former executive director. He drew a scenario where a private buyer could sit on the site for a decade and wait for it to appreciate. “That I don’t think is an acceptable solution for the community, it’s not an acceptable solution for us.”

During public comment, many people raised concerns about how the future of the site would be decided. Deputy executive director Diamonte Walker said the agency’s process could be better, “but I certainly like our process more than I like the private market’s process,” which provides few opportunities, if any, for public input.

After discussion, the board voted to approve taking over the plaza’s $1.6 million loan, as well as the unpaid real estate taxes. They intend to negotiate with the city, Allegheny County and Pittsburgh Public Schools to reduce the amount of tax they’ll have to pay. In addition, the board asked URA staff to work on a community engagement plan to drive future development of the site.

When the Centre Heldman Plaza opened in 2013, it was hailed as a transformative development. The Shop ‘n Save was the neighborhood’s first full-service grocery store in decades.