A trial. Almost exactly a year after Dollar Bank first moved to foreclose on the bankrupt August Wilson Center for African American Culture, there will be a trial  September 29 to determine if stipulations in the original property deed prevent its sale to 980 Liberty Partners.

If those restrictions are upheld, there will be no sale. Dollar Bank will foreclose and the center will go up for auction on Oct. 6.

In a July 16 hearing before Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O’Toole, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh presented its case that deed covenants require the property can only be used as a Black Cultural Center and that no exterior alterations to the structure can be made without URA permission.

The 980 Liberty Partners plan would pay off all the creditors including Dollar Bank and the URA with $9.5 million. The group would then build a 200-room luxury hotel above the existing structure while keeping the center running–providing free gallery and office space and using the performing arts space for 120 days a year.

Despite statements from URA Chair Kevin Acklin that money was donated by the public and foundations to support an African-American Cultural Center, not a hotel, it was revealed during testimony by Kyla Straussman, head of the URA property division, that nowhere in the deed do either the words “exclusive” or “only” appear.

The other restriction on altering the building exterior could prove a greater barrier to the sale, though Dollar Bank asserts the URA subordinated its rights when the Bank provided a $7 million mortgage loan to the center.

However, under questioning by Receiver Judith Fitzgerald’s attorney Michael Shiner, Straussman said that under the terms of the AWC development agreement, until the complete transfer of unused development rights occurs, “nothing shall restrict the grantee from building out the property to the greatest area consistent with the (zoning) code.”

The authority, she said, never completed that transfer.

“We sincerely wish we could see cooperation from the URA instead of opposition to a mixed use that seems to preserve the mission, put the property on the tax roles and create jobs,” said Shiner following the hearing.

Mathew Shollar, one of the 980 Liberty Partners, said if the deed restrictions remain in force—which they would until 2020—his group would have no reason to purchase the property.

“There has been basically no willingness (from the authority) to sit down and have productive discussions with us,” he said.

That could provide for the building to be sold to a consortium of local foundations that recently sweetened its “back up” bid to $7.2 million. That, however, would still not be enough to pay Dollar Bank, let alone any other creditors.

Acklin said the authority is not being uncooperative.

“We just think (the foundations bid) is the best proposal that would continue the mission of the organization,” he said.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpitts­burghcourier.com.)



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