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Half-Baked

Crummy debate over a former cracker plant

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Maybe because it's election season, everything seems like a debate between conservatives and liberals, between secretive moralizers and idealistic do-gooders. It's not just George W. Bush and John Kerry. The battle over preservation of the former Nabisco plant in East Liberty has taken on such overtones, down to the unfortunate distortions and failure to address the most relevant issues.

 

Dominating Penn Avenue at East Liberty Boulevard, near the conjunction of East Liberty, Point Breeze, Shadyside and Lincoln-Larimer, the Nabisco factory served as an architectural and olfactory landmark for decades after its 1917 opening. The baked goods produced inside made the whole area smell yummy, and the architectural press found Albert Zimmerman's design, a massive brick block with some surprisingly sugary details, similarly delectable. After Nabisco ceased operations there in 1998, Pittsburgh's Regional Industrial Development Corporation purchased the building with the hope that baking operations would continue, first under the Atlantic Baking Company, then under Bake-Line Corporation. With Bake-Line's recent bankruptcy filing, RIDC wants a buyer for the property.

 

Controversy erupted over the summer, when Pittsburgh's Young Preservationists Association nominated the structure for city historic designation without notifying RIDC. RIDC President Robert Stephenson fumed to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "This is America. People don't do things that way," apparently thinking of Osama bin Laden's little-known original plan, not to destroy the World Trade towers, but to nominate them as historic landmarks.

 

RIDC's lawyer Calvin Harvey likewise spoke gravely in a hearing before Pittsburgh's Historic Review Commission: Historic designation could be "deadly" to redevelopment efforts.

 

But in the tough-minded world of real-estate development, would the mention of historic preservation really send prospects scampering for cover as if someone had just raised the terror alert? Obviously not. Really, we're surrounded by upcoming preservation-based, large-scale commercial development projects, and plenty of others are successfully completed throughout the city. The conversion of part of the Heinz Factory on the North Side into residential units, the rehabilitation of the Armstrong Cork Factory into condos in the Strip, and Oxford Development's project for a hotel on Penn Avenue are underway, while projects such as the Spinning Plate Lofts on Friendship Avenue and the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel (the old Fulton Building) are completed. Preservation defines our successful Cultural District and South Side. The financial benefits of historic preservation are well documented in publications such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation's The Economics of Preservation, published in 1994. It should be a familiar refrain.

 

Regarding the Nabisco plant, Pittsburgh Business Times reporters document interested preservation-oriented developers (which the paper's editorial page ignores). Likewise, Cathy McCollum of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation says that she has received calls from interested parties. Scores of others with good track records in cities less promising than Pittsburgh can be identified with ease (Google search: Factory Preservation Developer).

 

Also, Michael Eversmeyer, chair of the Historic Review Commission, says his board will "bend over backwards" to seek an effective preservation plan. Still, he is asking RIDC for some more specifics to support its audacious claims about the supposed difficulties of reusing the old factory.

 

Frankly, preservation is deadly to business only if you want to, say, rip down the Nabisco Factory and all the other buildings to the corner of Penn and Fifth to put in a Wal-Mart and plenty of free parking. Is this the sort of proposal RIDC is getting ready for?

 

Thus far RIDC has been more vocal about vilifying its opposition than about directly addressing how best to develop the site. Clearly, some confidentiality is necessary, but it's not unheard of to have a public solicitation of credentials and proposals or at least a more forthcoming discussion of them. Meanwhile, Dan Holland of the Young Preservationists Association is not currently speaking on the record, though previously in the Post-Gazette he expressed fear of being portrayed as an obstructionist, despite his admirable goals and accomplishments. It's a page out of the Bush/Cheney playbook. Don't debate dissenters when you can first call them dangerous and unpatriotic, then bully them into silence.

 

Anyone with a serious vision for Pittsburgh's future understands that young people and old buildings are key components of success. In the real marketplaces of both money and ideas, preservation will win in a fair match-up. It will only fail when the forces of cronyism use secrecy and distortion to shut it out.

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