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Plan for Brentwood may boost shopping

Monday, June 08, 1998

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Its glory days behind it, Brentwood's aging shopping district has been rudderless since its anchor store, the Joseph Horne Co. department store, closed in the late 1980s.

Plans call for the demolition of Brentwood Village/Whitehall Center, including the Whitehall Twin Theater, seen here. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

Since then, both the Brentwood-Whitehall Shopping Center and the adjoining Brentwood Village/Whitehall Center have struggled with changes in ownership and increased vacancies. One of the shopping district's chief draws in recent years has been the Whitehall Twin Cinemas, which shows second-run movies at bargain rates.

Allegheny County Commissioner Bob Cranmer, a Brentwood resident and former member of borough council, watched the decline with sadness.

After winning a seat on Brentwood council in 1991, he led an effort to start the economic development corporation that is now trying to revitalize the two malls and a rundown stretch of Route 51 that has been an eyesore in the South Hills for years.

"It led me into politics," said Cranmer, who took office as a county commissioner in 1996.

Now Cranmer and Dennis Troy, the county's deputy director of economic development, are pushing a plan that would enable Giant Eagle to build one of its superstores in Brentwood as part of a $33.1 million redevelopment project. The project, which would change the face of the 14-acre shopping area between Brownsville Road and Route 51, is being coordinated by Chuck Carlson, executive director of the Brentwood Economic Development Corp.

The plans call for taking a wrecking ball to the Brentwood-Whitehall Shopping Center and the adjoining Brentwood Village, where the Whitehall Twin Theater is.

Replacing those malls would be a new shopping development called Brentwood Town Center. It would be anchored by a 78,000 square-foot Giant Eagle.

The plan calls for two new free-standing buildings for offices and stores, a four-story parking garage and space for a free-standing bank and fast food restaurant. Cranmer is even talking about trying to persuade the Port Authority to develop a Park N' Ride lot at the site.

It is an ambitious project, one that also brings with it a host of problems. There's asbestos in the buildings that would be torn down. Special accommodations have to be made for the post office, which now is in the Brentwood-Whitehall mall. Tenants in both malls are uncertain about their future, especially when they hear that they might have to move temporarily during construction.

A large electrical transmission tower owned by Duquesne Light Co. would have to be moved.

Neighbors, led by Bruce Artman, a local real estate agent, are unhappy because a new road planned for the development would dump mall traffic into a residential area.

The biggest question mark, however, is whether local officials are going to be willing to help Giant Eagle develop the property with a $3.6 million tax increment financing plan. That's a process whereby a portion of property tax revenues generated by new construction is set aside to pay for site improvements.

Carlson, who heads the economic development corporation, said that under the proposal, the borough, the school district and the county would set aside a portion of their property taxes each year for the next 18 years in order to generate the $3.6 million being sought to pay relocation costs and improve access to the site.

Last Thursday, the county commissioners voted to approve a nonbinding resolution that would allow the county's Redevelopment Authority to pursue the financing plan.

Brentwood council has already approved a similar resolution, but the Brentwood school board, already facing a financial crisis because of an ambitious renovation project, is not likely to be so agreeable.

"I know of no member on my board that will support this," said Dr. Jim Edwards, president of the Brentwood school board.

He said the board was getting ready to raise taxes by four mills to help pay for $25 million worth of renovations to its aging schools, which educate about 1,400 students. With school taxes at 109 mills, an increase to 113 mills would make school taxes among the highest in the county, Edwards said.

On June 22, the same night the board is to vote on the proposed tax increase, members will be asked to approve their own nonbinding resolution to pursue the tax increment financing.

"I am supportive of Giant Eagle, but I cannot in good conscience blindly support what they are saying," Edwards said.

Carlson said Giant Eagle had, through its subsidiary companies, already has purchased both malls, at a total cost of $6.3 million.

To build the new $33 million development, he said, Giant Eagle plans to invest another $5 million and secure a $23 million mortgage. He said the remaining $5 million had to come from a combination of loans, grants and the diversion of $3.6 million worth of property taxes by the three taxing bodies.

"We have to raise $5 million to make the project work," Carlson said.

Even if the financial impediments can be resolved, the project promises to be a challenging one.

The property drops 100 feet from Brownsville Road to Route 51, making the design difficult.

One of the proposed buildings would have retail stores facing Brownsville Road, and the lower floor would be retail shops facing Route 51. The two floors in between would house professional offices.

Earlier plans for senior citizen housing were scrapped.

An existing road between the two malls would be closed and a new one, with a signal at each end, would connect Route 51 and Brownsville by the entrance to St. Peter's Episcopal Church on Brownsville Road. Artman, who lives on Brownsville Road, across from the church, said that was a ridiculous idea.

"We can see a massive traffic problem," said Artman, who is talking about starting a petition drive. "We do not think the road should come through a residential area."

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