Community lends ears to Garden Theater block proposals


Just as eager as the kids that play there, Central Northside residents packed the Children’s Museum’s lower level on Monday, July 19 to hear from four developers on their proposals for the Garden Theater block.

Choosing a developer won’t be easy, but it will require the full community’s input, said Kirk Burkley, president of Northside Tomorrow — a joint venture between the Central Northside Neighborhood Council and the Northside Leadership Conference — the entity in charge of the project.

“I want to ask everyone to embrace the process, embrace the chaos,” Burkley said of the project, which he hopes to have underway by early next year.

Three developers showed proposals to develop the full block, which consists of 10 buildings in various stages of disrepair. Another, Aaron Stubna, of Coraopolis, Pa., explained his interest in developing only the Garden Theater into an independent film center and wine bar.

The largest of the developers, Wells and Company, hails from Spokane, Wa. The development company specializes in the historic preservation of large buildings and owns or holds an interest in more than 300 apartment units and 300,000 square feet of commercial real estate.

“When [my wife] Julie and I moved to Spokane, we thought we had a lifetime supply of historic buildings,” said principal Ron Wells, adding that he chose Pittsburgh as his next market out of seven cities with a large need for historic preservation.

Zukin Realty, another large property development and management company headquartered in Philadelphia, Pa., owns the NW Ayer Building in Philadelphia and the 50,000 square foot mixed-use building that houses the Rite Aid on the corner of Forbes and Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill.

President Wayne Zukin said his company has also been an integral part of the revitalization of downtown West Chester, Pa., where they have converted former Victorian townhouses into Restaurants and commercial spaces.

The third developer, Bill Barron, is an independent developer well-known to residents for renovating the building that now houses Crazy Mocha and 4 E. North Avenue next door. He has redeveloped more than a dozen properties in the Lawrenceville neighborhood, many of which are first-floor storefronts with overhead apartments.

Each of the three developers with proposals for the entire block explained to residents how their proposals differed.

For the sake of comparison, here is a rundown of the three full-block proposals by building:


The Bradberry Building

  • Barron would convert the apartment building into eight one-bedroom units and four two-bedroom units. He would combine the third and fourth floors.
  • Wells proposed renovating the building’s 16 one-bedroom units and adding an elevator to serve both the Bradberry and the Masonic Hall.
  • Zukin would also develop the building into 16 one-bedroom units.


The Masonic Hall

  • Barron proposed converting the Romanesque Revival-style building into three commercial storefronts on the first floor and the upper floors into eight loft apartments.
  • Wells would convert the first floor into a restaurant and brew pub with nine apartments above.
  • Zukin forsees either three first-floor retail storefronts or a restaurant and five loft apartments on the upper levels.


The Garden Theater

  • Barron would demolish the auditorium in the rear to provide for residential parking. He would renovate the former porn theater to suit the needs of a forthcoming tenant.
  • Wells would rehabilitate the building “as a tenant ready space for a multi-purpose performing arts center. He would then seek a long-term operator.
  • Referencing a marketing study conducted by the neighborhood, Zukin would redevelop the building for use as a specialty grocery with 10,000 square feet. He would also reserve separate portions in the front for small retail businesses. Part of the auditorium would be demolished to provide parking for both the grocery and the residential buildings.

8 W. North Avenue

  • All three developers would renovate the first floor for office space and the upper floors into apartments. Barron and Zukin both proposed three apartments. Wells did not specify a number.


6 W. North Avenue

  • Barron proposed renovating the 4,000 square foot Victorian row house and keeping it as a single-family home.
  • Wells proposed apartments on all floors.
  • Zukin would convert the space into 1,700 square feet of office space.


2 and 4 W. North Avenue

  • Barron and Wells did not have definitive plans for the buildings and would consider demolishing the buildings. Wells suggested he might use some of the space as part of a new apartment building with as many as 85 units (See next section).
  • Zukin would reuse the existing buildings and proposed that both buildings feature first-floor retail and three apartments on the upper floors of 4 W. North.


1107, 1109-1111 (vacant lot) and 1113-1115 Federal Street

  • Barron would renovate 1107 into a “live/work space,” had not decided on the final use of the vacant lot and would remake 1113-1115 into two retail spaces and up to four apartments
  • Wells said he would likely demolish the buildings and, using some of the space now occupied by 2 and 4 W. North, would construct a new apartment complex with as many as 85 residential units — the majority one-bedroom.
  • Zukin proposed demolishing 1107 and using the space along with the vacant lot for surface parking. Like Barron, he would convert the structure at 1113-1115 into retail space and up to three apartments. However, Zukin’s proposal reserves the right for the developer to also develop a large-scale apartment building above the parking area to mirror the Wells proposal. However, that is not his focus in the near future.

The major differences between the developers involve issues of parking, number of residential units and the use of the Garden Theater building.

“The biggest service need we see is for a food market,” said Wayne Zukin, adding that it would be comparable in size to most Trader Joe’s stores, but would focus on fresh produce and healthy alternatives to both of the Northside’s two Giant Eagle supermarkets.

Wells, on the other hand, favors a performing arts center that would attract a nighttime crowd to the block. He confirmed that he was willing to work with Aaron Stubna on the latter’s independent film center, which would double as a music venue, if residents favored that approach. Wells has already developed two separate historic theater projects in Spokane, Wa., and a microbrewery and restaurant.

Barron’s plan proposes up to 34 residential units; Wells’s, up to100; and Zukin’s, between 35 and 40.

The issue of parking also displays a split between developer’s intentions. Wells believes the existing parking garage on Federal Street will compensate for his development. Barron and Zukin both believe that surface parking is necessary to make up for the increased population density around the block.

Costs have not been finalized, but the Wells proposal would rank somewhere between $15 and $20 million. Zukin did not give a clear estimate of the cost but said he would rely on adding his company’s own equity to local bank financing. Barron estimated that the Bradberry Building and the Masonic Hall would cost up to $1.2 million apiece but did not have estimates for the entire project.

Resident opinion

By the end of the meeting, many Central Northside residents had zeroed in on their favorite proposals, but nearly everyone said they would like to tweak certain components of each.

“I think Mr. Barron’s proposal to take down the back of the Garden Theater is practical,” said Al, who asked that his last name not be used. Al said parking was a major issue for him. “I disagree with the notion that you can put another 100 apartments in without having a parking problem.”

A few other residents also favored Barron, because of his work on Crazy Mocha across the street.

John Augustine, who lives on W. North Avenue, said he was impressed with both the Wells and Zukin proposals. “[Wells and Company] obviously have done similar projects. They need to take another look at it [though, and realize the need for parking].

As for Zukin’s proposal? “I haven’t seen the marketing studies [that show a need for a grocery]. But if they believe they can make it work, more power to them,” Augustine said.

Jana Thompson, who lives on Resaca Street, favored Barron, but said she was concerned about his ability to finance the project.

John Canning echoed Thompson’s concerns. “I think that the development plan of the Wells group has the best chance of happening in a way that would change the Garden Block for the better in the near future,” he said in an email. “I liked their track record of working with historic properties of the scale of the block, their knowledge of leveraging funds, and their commitment to the historical integrity of the various facades.

“We have one shot, the first in almost a generation, at bringing in a massive investment in a very deteriorated site. A plan with critical mass is crucial,” Canning concluded.

Wells and Company is the only developer with a letter of interest from a specific financing company — Greystone Financial Group from New York.

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