This 20,000 square foot office building under construction in downtown McKees Rocks will become the new home of the Allegheny County Housing Authority.
By Jamie Wiggan
Two in-the-works development projects were the focus of a two-hour remote meeting held July 14 by McKees Rocks Borough officials.
Council ultimately approved a cooperation agreement between the borough and the Allegheny County Housing Authority (ACHA) but took no action on an advertised agenda item relating to plans for a gas station at the former Pat Catan’s site on Chartiers Avenue.
Discussion on the cooperation agreement stirred up old disputes over the development of an office site at the former Eat’n Park restaurant site on Chartiers Avenue. “This is really cheating the people of this community,” said former councilwoman Maribeth Taylor, who weighed in as a resident.
Adopted during the meeting, the agreement secures a voluntary annual contribution of $5,860.25, paid to the borough in lieu of property taxes for the duration of its 20-year lease on the building.
Currently under construction, the finished structure will accommodate 20,000 square feet of office space over two floors. The ACHA — exempt from local, school and county tax requirements — will be the primary tenant.
President Paul Krisby, Vice President Kathy Evich and councilmembers Joe Mixter, Craig Myers, Chas Martiz and Archie Brinza approved the motion, while councilmembers Liz Delgado and Sarah Harvey dissented.
Before the votes were cast, Harvey and Delgado unsuccessfully attempted to table the motion.
Taylor criticized the voluntary contribution as insufficient, arguing the project was subsidized by $2.5 million in state funding on the expectation it would benefit the local economy.
“That building is a couple million dollar building, and to say we’re gonna give $5,000 a year in tax money is ridiculous,” she said.
“…This is not fair to the taxpayers of McKees Rocks.”
Also on the call, landlord Craig Rippole, partner at Trinity Commercial Development, weighed in against Taylor’s statements.
“I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” he said.
Rippole said the grant money was used to offset construction costs so the ACHA could be “enticed” into the community by a subsidized rental agreement. The anticipated 70 employees stationed there will boost local business by bringing in additional foot traffic, he added.
“They’re gonna buy lunch and shop and [more people will be] coming here,” he said. “…At the end of the day, it’s the housing authority that’s benefiting from the cheaper rent, but the borough’s benefiting from them being here.”
Although property owners are usually responsible for paying taxes, the ACHA took on the tax burden by entering into a triple net lease with Trinity. Usually long-term agreements, triple net leases transfer all expenses related to the building — including taxes, insurance and maintenance costs — to the tenant.
The annual $5,860.25 contribution pledged by the housing authority approximates the tax rate on the property when it was occupied by Eat’n Park at an assessed value of $562,500. An updated assessment factoring in the new construction has not yet been issued by the county.
Borough Solicitor Megan Turnbull of Weiss, Burkardt, Kramer, LLC said the ACHA made the offer in recognition it will benefit from the borough’s public services, and encouraged council to adopt the measure.
Turnbull said the ACHA had also approached the Sto-Rox School District with a similar proposal.
News last spring that Eat’n Park was going to leave McKees Rocks after more than 50 years stirred up strong feelings among councilmembers and the wider community, many of whom questioned whether the publicly subsidized project would benefit the town and whether enough had been done to help Eat’n Park remain in place.
The restaurant closed late June 2019 and the building was leveled four months later.
Construction on the new building was temporarily delayed by COVID-19-related shutdown measures but is now back underway.
In another contentious development project, an item advertised on the agenda as “GetGo Special Use Application” led residents to prepare public comments in anticipation of official council action.
“Council should table this vote until certain safety concessions can be secured from Giant Eagle, such as additional speed limit signs, speed indicators such as those on Carson Street and other sensible solutions,” wrote resident David Flick in a statement read aloud during the meeting.
Taylor also submitted comments denouncing the project and calling on council to deny the application.
However, following the comments Krisby clarified the application had already been approved by the Zoning Appeals Board and therefore did not require council approval.
He did not explain why it was included on the agenda with himself listed as the presenter.
The plans to build a GetGo fueling station and convenience store at the site of the former Pat Catan’s location on 1250 Chartiers Ave. have drawn criticism from residents concerned about traffic implications for the surrounding residential neighborhood.
The borough’s Zoning Appeals Board accepted a special use application required to build a gas station at the proposed location during a hearing on May 28, however, council still has to approve a site development application before construction can begin.
Turnbull said council’s review of the site development application would provide a suitable opportunity for council members and residents to register concerns over traffic and health and safety issues.