Garden Theater block: Mostly positive response on developer decision

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With a developer selected for the Garden Theater block, many Northsiders made their opinions on the subject clear: They are glad to see progress, and look forward to having another option for grocery shopping. 

Others, however, feel that the speciality grocery store planned for the space doesn’t do justice to the historic theater.

On Oct. 21, the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s board of directors voted unanimously to enter into exclusive negotiations with Zuckin Development Corporation and Collaborative Ventures, a joint venture entity, for the period of 90 days.

The URA board voted on the recommendation of Northside Tomorrow, LLC, a joint venture between the Northside Leadership Conference and Central Northside Neighborhood Council.

Zuckin was chosen out of five developers who submitted proposals earlier this year. Two of the three full block proposals “rose to the top,” said URA Project Development Specialist Rebecca Davidson-Wagner.

“We spent the next couple of months calling references and doing due diligence,” Davidson-Wagner said.

She added that Northside Tomorrow and the URA worked closely and collaboratively throughout the process.

The Zuckin plan includes a mix of retail space, apartments and offices. It would demolish part of the Garden Theater’s auditorium for parking and a loading dock and convert the rest of the theater into a specialty grocery story. The Masonic hall would become either three stores or one restaurant, with loft apartments on the upper floors, and the Bradberry building would be an apartment buildin The rest of the buildings would either become stores, apartments or offices.

Soon after the URA board’s vote, some Northsiders both lauded and criticized the decision on a neighborhood message board over Zuckin’s plan to demolish part of the Garden Theater’s auditorium and convert the historic landmark into a specialty grocery store.

Stacy Lane, a member of Chat Northside, a Yahoo group, said in an e-mail to The Chronicle, “It’s a mistake to put another grocery in Central Northside. … The historical Garden Theater should remain a theater.”

Other members said on the chat that they look forward to having an alternative to the Giant Eagle on Cedar Avenue, and others are happy that progress is being made at all.

In an e-mail statement, Northside Tomorrow President Kirk Burkley said that the organization chose Zuckin after much discussion and community feedback.

“We believe that Zukin’s proposal has the best chance of success for the completion of the entire block and that his team has the resources to get this done. … His proposal best matches the global goals and desires of the community,” Burkley said.

Central Northside Neighborhood Council President Greg Spicer agreed with Burkley’s statement.

In an e-mail statement, Spicer said, "The CNNC is extremely pleased with the open and comprehensive community process that led to this decision by the URA — a decision that shows a high degree of confidence in our ability to get things done here.

“While there have been many great ideas for the adaptive reuse of the Garden Theater Block, the Zukin plan fits well with both the CNNC’s desire to work towards a healthy, thriving, accessible and forward-looking community and the NSLC’s long-standing desire to entice the East End Food Co-Op to open a location here in the Northside."

In 2009, the Central Northside Neighborhood Council developed a comprehensive community plan that included the Garden Theater block, Spicer said in a phone interview.

The development of the plan, by Pfaffmann and Associates, included many public meetings and workshops, which Spicer said were well attended. Of the 18 total workshops held, three specifically focused on the Garden Theater block. In addition, three Northside Tomorrow meetings held in 2009 were included in the plan’s development.

The plan’s “development key” for the Garden Theater was “entertainment, film and events.” A plan summary can be found on the Central Northside Neighborhood Council’s website, www.cnnc-pgh.org.

Rob Pfaffmann, principal of Pfaffmann and Associates, said some of the reuse ideas discussed for the Garden were a niche theater, a restaurant, a banquet hall or a mixed-use space.

Although they briefly discussed the option of tearing down the back of the theater for parking, Pfaffman said the thought at the time the study was put together was to use historic tax credits to renovate the Garden, so they did not focus on that option.

Now, he said, the Zuckin proposal will use those tax credits for other buildings.

Once Northside Tomorrow received developers’ proposals earlier this year, it held an open community meeting in July where developers presented their proposals and the community was able to ask questions.

Northside Tomorrow also accepted feedback through its website, www.gardentheaterblock.com.

At its September membership meeting, Spicer announced that the CNNC board had voted unanimously to recommend that Northside Tomorrow choose the Zuckin proposal. CNNC does not hold a membership meeting in August.

Zuckin Development now has to secure letters of intent from both lenders and potential tenants over the next 90 days. As the company obtains the letters, it has to refine its development plan before the URA grants final approval to start the project.

Wayne Zuckin, the company’s president, said he would focus on getting local boutiques and restaurants into the redeveloped business spaces. Another focus is attracting businesses that reflect the Central Northside’s diversity.

Zuckin said that several businesses had expressed interested in the project, but were unwilling to make a commitment until he had site control.

“They might talk to us before, but now we can say, ‘Hey, this is a real project,’” Zuckin said.

He will refine his proposal based on the potential tenants he attracts. Once he has an idea of who wants to rent space upon the development’s completion, Zuckin said he will decide exactly how many offices, apartments and storefronts he needs.

In the e-mail statement, Burkley said that anyone with a solid business plan, financial capacity and an idea for the block is welcome to contact Zuckin.

“The main goal of every Northsider is to see this block improved and put to positive use,” Burkley said in the e-mail statement.

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