Steelers' land feud may go to court.
Steelers land feud may end up in court
By Jeremy Boren
Thursday, June 5, 2008
An impasse over a few acres in Heinz Field's shadow could stall development on the North Shore and start a court battle between the Steelers and Pittsburgh's Stadium Authority.
At issue is whether the Steelers can buy 3.82 acres of prime, riverside real estate so its developer, Continental Real Estate, can build a long-delayed, $10 million, 2,000-seat entertainment complex.
Stadium Authority Chairwoman Debbie Lestitian said the Steelers have lost the exclusive right to develop the property known as Lot 6 because Continental hasn't built fast enough on the North Shore.
What's more, Lestitian contends the Steelers failed to comply with terms of an extension the authority granted in 2005 to buy or lease Lot 6.
"None of the four conditions in the board's 2005 written extension for the purchase of Lot 6 were met by the Steelers," said Lestitian, an attorney and accountant with the Downtown firm Rothman Gordon. "Therefore, despite any reports to the contrary, there is no deal in place with respect to Lot 6."
Mark Hart, the Steelers' director of business, said in a written statement that the team is working with the authority to buy Lot 6 and complete a separate deal with the authority to pay $1.3 million for 3.53 acres near PNC Park. The team wants to build a $27.5 million Hyatt Place hotel on that site.
"Our option agreement to purchase this land remains in effect," Hart said. "At this time, we are continuing to work with the Stadium Authority to approve both projects."
Hart would not address Lestitian's contention the team failed to meet conditions outlined in the 2005 extension.
The Sports & Exhibition Authority owns PNC Park and Heinz Field. The Stadium Authority, created to oversee Three Rivers Stadium, remains in control of several North Shore parcels even though the stadium was demolished in 2001.
The Steelers have submitted an "informal proposal" for an entertainment complex on Lot 6, which the Stadium Authority is examining despite Lestitian's concerns about the extension, said Mary Conturo, a former city solicitor who serves as executive director of the city-controlled Stadium Authority and the SEA, which is a joint city-county agency.
Conturo wouldn't disclose the proposal's details. Nor would she say whether the Steelers have lost their exclusive right to develop land between the stadiums as outlined in a 2003 agreement.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who reappointed Lestitian to the five-member board this year, has said he wants a fast resolution.
"My preference is to have development happen there as quickly as we possibly can," Ravenstahl said last month, moments before a closed-door meeting with Lestitian and two other board members, state Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, and lobbyist Robert Ewanco.
The mayor said he doesn't believe the price the Steelers would pay for Lot 6 is set. Lestitian has expressed concerns that a previous legal settlement between the city and the team sets the price at $1 million, far below its value.
The Stadium Authority dispute has drawn attention from Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato.
Onorato or his representatives have met privately twice in two weeks with Stadium Authority officials, including Lestitian, Ewanco and authority solicitor Diane Wolfarth, an attorney with Downtown firm Papernick & Gefsky.
"His goal is to see development happen there," said Kevin Evanto, Onorato's spokesman.
Evanto said Ravenstahl invited Onorato to meet with the Stadium Authority because Onorato "is the leader of the region," and not to exert political influence over board members.
Wheatley said the authority is prepared to defend Lestitian's position in court, but he hopes it doesn't come to that.
"It would take a couple years in court to see if the city and the Stadium Authority would have the right to give the development to another developer," Wheatley said. "We want to make sure these parcels don't sit vacant in a protracted legal battle over who has the authority to do what."
Wheatley said another agreement with the Steelers and Continental is needed -- one that includes financial penalties for not meeting development deadlines.
The stakes are high, said Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference.
North Side residents and business owners don't want to see the city repeat the development failures of Three Rivers Stadium, which was surrounded by surface parking lots that generated little property and business tax money for the city.
"I have no idea who's right or wrong, but we want development that generates vitality, employment and the amenities that make people want to be here," Fatla said.