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August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh can ‘absolutely’ support hotel | TribLIVE.com
Allegheny

August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh can ‘absolutely’ support hotel

Karen Zapf
| Thursday, June 5, 2014 10:57 p.m
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James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
The August Wilson Center is structurally strong enough to support the addition of a ten-story hotel. This is vital in a possible deal to sell the building to a New York developer.
PTRWILSON1092913
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh's August Wilson Center for African American Culture, named for the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright from the Hill District, opened in 2009 with the help of $17.4 million in taxpayer money. It quickly accumulated debt because of cost overruns and insufficient fundraising for construction.

The August Wilson Center for African American Culture “absolutely” should be structurally sound enough to support a 10-story hotel atop its existing Downtown building, the project’s former contracting supervisor said on Thursday.

“The structural integrity of this building is like one that would be built in California,” said Louis Lannutti, who supervised the $40 million project in 2008 while working for Sterling Contracting LLC. “The kind of columns and steel beams that were included as extra supports would be able to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes that we probably would never experience here in Pittsburgh.”

The cultural center’s original plans called for an eventual second phase that would include the build-out of a hotel, condominiums or — if the center proved extraordinarily successful — a few more stories of high-ceiling exhibition space, according to city Bureau of Building Inspection records and the architect, Allison Williams.

But less than five years since the center’s opening, a court-appointed receiver is trying to strike a deal with a New York developer to buy the entire building and its air rights for $9.5 million, a deal that hinges on the possibility of a hotel. The goal is to avoid a Dollar Bank foreclosure on a center built with at least $17.4 million in taxpayer money.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O’Toole last week approved the preliminary purchase bid by 980 Liberty Partners, whose investors are overseeing an engineering study to determine if their plan to build the 200-room hotel atop the two-story, boat-shaped structure is feasible.

Williams, design director for AECOM’s U.S. West region in San Francisco, said 980’s plan is larger than the 110-room boutique hotel she anticipated when she designed the center. She envisioned a 100-foot tower that could connect to a five-star restaurant on the rooftop — “something keeping with the center’s mission, not a great, big chain hotel.”

“The addition of the tower on top is a really important piece of the completion, and I miss that it’s not there, but it also should not overwhelm the center or be greedy about the availability of air rights,” Williams said. “The outcome here is so mired in the financial difficulties, and that I think is changing the dynamic of maybe what the right thing to do with the space is.”

Nonprofit representatives speculating on the future of the building expressed concerns that there may have been cutbacks that left portions of the structure needed to support a tower incomplete. Lannutti said he doesn’t recall any such change orders or reductions during construction.

“If anything, we increased the structural integrity as we went along,” said Lannutti, now president of CM Solutions LLC.

The center, named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright from the Hill District, is $10 million in debt. It owes at least $7 million to Dollar Bank, which last week filed a court motion requesting the ability to move on a foreclosure if the receiver doesn’t make progress on the sale by the end of June. Dollar Bank hasn’t received a payment from the center since February 2013.

Financial problems plagued the center from its opening in 2009. The center did not raise enough money to cover cost overruns, nor did it establish an endowment or ongoing revenue stream to sustain its operations.

The court appointed Judith K. Fitzgerald as a conservator in a last-ditch effort to save the center and later as a receiver to sell its assets to pay its debts.

“The object is to try to make this building a destination spot,” said Fitzgerald, who supports 980’s plan. The group has said it would provide office and gallery space for the center and use of the performing arts venue for a minimum of 120 days a year.

The city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority and state attorney general’s office oppose the plan, citing concerns over investors violating deed covenants that the URA says limit use of the building to a nonprofit black cultural center.

The $9.5 million offer from 980 dwarfs a $5 million offer put forth by three local foundations led by The Pittsburgh Foundation.

The URA objected to the 980 proposal in part because it says the company has not proved it can finance the deal.

O’Toole, the judge, gave tentative approval to 980’s purchase on two conditions: The engineering study must determine the hotel is feasible, and 980 must show proof it has the money to close the sale.

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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