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Council moves ahead on staging lease amid opposition, questions

Photo provided to the Times Observer This is a look at how staging for the construction of a senior living facility at the corner of Liberty St. and Pennsylvania Ave. will be handled in the coming months. City Council approved a lease agreement solidifying this proposal during Monday’s meeting. The April 19 date on parcel one was amended to April 1.

With construction set to begin later this year on a proposed senior housing project at the intersection of Liberty Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s no secret that the developer will need space to stage and store materials and equipment throughout the construction process.

But settling on the terms for a lease for such a use prompted a vigorous debate during Monday’s City Council meeting with one council member calling council’s decision to move ahead “embarrassing.” The crux of the issue was the allegation that the city did not formally approach potentially affected business owners while developing the lease. Three city-owned parcels are subject to the proposal, according to City Manager Mike Holtz.

The first is located just behind the construction site and Holtz said it’s rented by Allegheny Outfitters from April through October. A second parcel is further to the east in that same lot.

The third is adjacent to the city’s sewage plant pump station at the base of Market Street and is currently leased for staging for roundabout construction. Holtz explained that the plan would see the developer stage at the second lot only until the roundabout construction is completed. He added that the first lot would only be used during the off season when it is not leased by Allegheny Outfitters.

“This seemed like the least intrusive option for all the businesses and that’s where we came up with the plan that we have here,” he said, noting that the agreement does not impact any existing lease the city may have.

Piper VanOrd with Allegheny Outfitters addressed council because she said she is “unsure what exactly is going to happen. We would like to know because we may be adversely affected.”

She said she had “heard a lot of different things” from different members of council.

“We’re sort of in panic mode right now,” VanOrd said.

Kelley Coey, the director of development for Hudson Companies, the firm constructing the senior living space, said they intend to start construction around Aug. 1.

“That date is not solid,” she said. “If we are delayed, we will keep the city apprised.”

Coey said construction from beginning to end will take about 14 months.

Councilwoman Wendy McCain proposed postponing action on the lease to “consider the impacted businesses” as well as amend some terms of the contract. One of those amended terms included a date change for when the developer has to vacate the parcel right behind the construction site in response to a specific business concern.

“Nobody ever said anything to us about a lease,” Denise Cuadill with Bent Run Brewing said. “A lot of this is going to impact us in a big way.”

She said that there are “certain things with these datelines that affect big events that I do” and argued that it was “unfair the way it was being handled with us not being involved.”

Councilman John Wortman called for rejecting the motion to postpone.

“This is a multi-million dollar construction project,” he said. “This should not be tabled and we should sit here and get this done and pass this.”

He stressed the fiduciary role council members play as well as the fact that the parcels belong to the city.

“We are not ending a lease with any existing business to lease these properties,” he added.

Coey said a one-month delay would not impact their schedule and Councilman Phil Gilbert said he didn’t “see any reason why we can’t table for a month. It’s one month.”

“Maybe if we work with the businesses they can help with that plan,” McCain said.

The motion to table failed 5-2 with Gilbert and McCain the only “yes” votes.

Council then discussed a motion to approve the lease agreement.

“I find moving forward with this embarrassing,” McCain said.

“The city has a fiduciary responsibility to each of our taxpayers,” Wortman said. “City Council has listen to input received and taken those facts into account…. For Mrs. McCain to attack the process… is simply not accurate. Just because a vote doesn’t go the way you want it to go …. I don’t understand why you would address that democratic process.”

“It’s going to be a busy construction summer,” Mayor Dave Wortman said. “This is a great plan to facilitate use of our city property to facilitate” construction.

The motion to approve the lease passed 5-2 with Gilbert and McCain in opposition.

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