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Death Notice Guestbook

Obituary: Jack Buncher / Developer who built real estate empire

Wednesday, December 05, 2001

By Dan Fitzpatrick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Jack Buncher, a developer who turned a Pittsburgh scrap business into a multimillion-dollar real estate empire, died yesterday in Palm Beach, Fla.

He was 90.

Mr. Buncher was chairman and chief executive officer of The Buncher Co., a Squirrel Hill firm that still owns hundreds of acres throughout Pittsburgh and is one of the city's largest property owners. The company has extensive holdings in the Strip District, where Mr. Buncher's father first opened a scrap yard in 1917 and where Mr. Buncher himself developed a string of warehouses along the Allegheny River.

Over the years, Mr. Buncher also acquired land in the West End, South Side, North Side and Westmoreland and Beaver counties. In the 1950s, he developed the region's first industrial park, in Leetsdale. In the 1960s, he cleared the way for Three Rivers Stadium by selling his scrap yard on the North Side. In the 1980s, he also cleared the way for the West Busway -- a project his company had pitched to local transportation authorities -- by selling a 55-acre strip of former railroad land from West Carson Street to Carnegie.

Mr. Buncher was a stubborn negotiator, earning a reputation for keeping his costs low and being conservative with his investments. He handled his own general contracting and rarely sold the property he purchased. Around the office, he would warn colleagues that "once you sell it, you don't have it anymore," according to Buncher President Tom Balestrieri.

As a result, Mr. Buncher leaves behind one of the largest real estate portfolios ever accumulated in Pittsburgh. Company officials were unwilling to disclose the exact size of Mr. Buncher's portfolio, but they did say that Mr. Buncher himself owned 100 percent of The Buncher Co.'s stock. It is not known what will happen to that ownership stake, but company Vice Chairman Herb Green said ownership would probably pass to the Buncher Family Foundation, which Mr. Buncher created in 1974 to support charitable causes.

For the last several years, Mr. Buncher has not been involved in day-to-day management of his company due to his physical condition.

Green said Mr. Buncher suffered from senile dementia, lost weight and much of his short-term memory and required nursing care 24 hours a day. "He couldn't do anything for himself," Green said. "It was a very, very sad picture to see."

In better days, Mr. Buncher was dapper, slender and energetic, with clear blue eyes. He started with little. The son of Russian immigrants, Mr. Buncher was 6 years old when his father, Harry, opened a scrap yard at 3131 Liberty Ave. in the Strip District. His father used a horse-drawn wagon to haul metal, rags and other refuse to the yard, called Liberty Scrap Co.

Mr. Buncher's mother vowed her son would not be a scrap dealer.

"I was going to be a doctor," Mr. Buncher said in a 1991 interview. "Not a 'dentist doctor.' A 'doctor doctor.'"

But after stints at a department store and Duquesne University, where Mr. Buncher studied medicine and law, the Depression forced his return to the family business in 1931. Four years later, he assumed control of the company's four-block-long scrap yard in the Strip District.

He was 24.

During World War II, Mr. Buncher helped Pittsburgh steel producers find and acquire machinery and buildings needed for the war effort. After the war, he established a scrap steel operation to supply the steel needed for the postwar boom.

As part of that business, he opened a scrap yard on the North Side. When the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority approached him in the 1960s, wanting to buy the site, the negotiations quickly turned contentious.

"He was a tough businessman, and like any businessman, he was going to get the best he possibly could out of that site," said Robert Pease, URA director at the time.

Pease and Mr. Buncher ironed out a price, and the land became the foundation for Three Rivers Stadium. Eventually, Pease and Mr. Buncher became friends and Pease learned to respect his tenacity.

"You always knew where you stood," Pease said.

Mr. Buncher is survived by his wife, Joanne; daughter Bernita Buncher of Pittsburgh; son Steven Buncher of Florida; sister Rose Cohen; four grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; two stepchildren; and five step-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at Rodef Shalom Synagogue in Shadyside.



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