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Washington Neighborhoods
Upgrading downtown

Southpointe developer wants to revitalize Washington, but what about what's there now?

Sunday, April 13, 2003

By Joe Smydo, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Jack Piatt Sr. said his $100 million plan for remaking the Washington business district includes a mall with outlet shops and a development of loft apartments and townhouses, all sprawling across two square blocks.

The plan would give direction to the city's 7-year-old downtown revitalization campaign but raises questions about the future of beloved Shorty's Lunch and other businesses in the area eyed by the 75-year-old developer and industrialist.

Piatt, offering the first details of a plan befitting his bold persona, said he wants to incorporate Shorty's and other merchants into the venture. Mayor Ken Westcott said he does, too.

"They could stay," Piatt said of Shorty's. "We might have to relocate them or build them a new facility or something like that."

Shorty's co-owner Steve Alexas said he will keep an open mind until Piatt and his associates present a final proposal to the city, something Piatt said he's not yet prepared to do.

"Once we hear what they want and what they want to do, we may agree. We may disagree," Alexas said, fearing changes would kill the Washington institution known for its chili-mustard-onion hot dogs, minimalist ambiance and split-second service.

Shorty's has occupied the storefront at 34 W. Chestnut St. since the 1930s. It's a stone's throw from the Millcraft Center office complex that Piatt built in the 1970s and would use as the anchor of a revitalization plan he called "as ambitious as Southpointe was 10 years ago."

From office buildings to a golf course to a hotel to single-family houses and townhouses, Piatt invested more than $105 million in the county's mixed-use park in Cecil -- $30 million more than he said he pledged in 1989. Piatt's commitments helped move Southpointe off the drawing board and into the ranks of the region's top business parks.

Now Piatt wants to refocus his creative energies on Washington and bump the city's revitalization effort to a new level. Until Piatt came forward four months ago, the biggest planned investment was $14.5 million in streetscape improvements.

Piatt's plan for outlet shops offers the business district not only a new look but a new identity -- "a new life," he said, "because it's dead." With a chuckle, Piatt said he hopes he lives long enough to behold the transformation.

"I think when you get a little older, you sort of want to return the goodies," he said, noting Washington and its residents have contributed to his success.

In January, Piatt announced his intention to purchase the former YMCA at North Franklin and West Beau streets, near Millcraft Center. Piatt said the closing is set for Tuesday.

Piatt said at the time that he planned to build a parking garage on the YMCA site, refurbish Millcraft Center's exterior and incorporate Millcraft's outdoor parking lots into a $100 million retail-housing-office project.

No other details were provided.

During recent interviews, however, Piatt fleshed out his plans, saying that for the outlet mall, he would like to acquire the rest of the square block dominated by Millcraft Center and the YMCA.

That would mean acquiring properties along West Chestnut, North Main and West Beau streets that are home to more than 24 businesses and other tenants. Piatt said he would incorporate some of the existing buildings, including those with historic value, into the development and retain some street-level retail there.

Westcott said a more realistic plan may be for Piatt to acquire the properties along West Chestnut and those along North Main as far as Pine Alley, about a half-block from West Beau. Westcott said that would give Piatt several vacant properties but leave untouched a handful of well-kept or historic buildings and the Bassettown Manor apartments for the elderly at 39 N. Main.

Piatt also envisions development -- street-level retail, loft apartments and townhouses -- north of Millcraft Center in the area bounded by West Chestnut, North Main, North Franklin and West Walnut streets.

Millcraft already owns property in that area -- a parking lot along West Chestnut and a parking area off Spruce Street, a narrow throughway parallel to West Chestnut. Westcott said Piatt also may be able to acquire some area houses, including one that burned.

For the revitalization to succeed, Piatt said, people have to live downtown.

He said he's willing to include other developers in "a mimicry of what we did at Southpointe." In all, a variety of developers invested about $254 million in the Cecil development.

Piatt is a go-getter whose involvement lends oomph and credibility to the revitalization. Westcott chuckled about having to rein him in occasionally.

"His track record at Southpointe obviously speaks volumes," Westcott said. "I think if he can bring half that enthusiasm to downtown, I look forward to some great things happening here."

Piatt wants to refurbish Millcraft Center's exterior in a style consistent with the architecture of Washington and Jefferson College -- part of his strategy for boosting the downtown economy by better linking the town and the school.

In a joke that underscores the business district's malaise, Alexas said he could make a killing with a store selling "for rent" signs to downtown property owners.

The downtown has lacked an identity since the 1970s, when shoppers began flocking to climate-controlled malls offering plentiful and free parking. Piatt would offer amenities shoppers love -- Grove City-style outlet shops, but in a mall setting, with specialty shops and other extras.

"There probably would be a bookstore and various food courts and so forth, all under roof," he said.

Westcott said eight to 10 outlet stores, featuring the likes of L.L. Bean and Gap, would help lure W&J students downtown. Piatt talked about incorporating the W&J bookstore into his mall and creating a business district so vibrant parents of prospective students would become hooked during recruitment visits.

The Millcraft Center complex occupies about half of the block between North Franklin and North Main on the south side of West Chestnut. The block has five other businesses -- including Shorty's with its bruised wooden booths, scarred mirrors and windowfront grill -- and four vacant storefronts.

Piatt said he might be able to offer Shorty's a West Chestnut storefront "a few steps" from the current location.

Piatt described Shorty's as a landmark and recalled eating there when he was as young as 5. The restaurant hasn't changed since then, and that's how customers like it.

"Several years ago, we were considering remodeling. The more we thought about it, the more we decided we didn't dare," George Alexas, Steve's father, told an interviewer in 1984.

"We cannot make a change that will be seen," John Contorakes, then a co-owner, said at the time. "It would kill business."

Steve Alexas said he worries about having to shut down during Piatt's construction project, about the costs of relocation and about paying higher rent in a new building that customers might not like.

"We don't want to leave," he said.

Westcott said he isn't going to tell Shorty's owners to "get out," and Piatt said he doesn't want to force anybody out of business. Rather, Piatt said he wants Shorty's and other merchants to remain downtown and enjoy new prosperity with businesses he hopes his project will attract.

"We're going to do it first class," he said. "Our ideas on paper look very good."

Joe Smydo can be reached by at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 724-746-8812.

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