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Long-Stalled Redevelopment Of North Side's Garden Theater Frustrating For Community

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- After two decades, four mayors and $3 million, the Garden Theater and the block at Federal Street and North Avenue on the North Side are still waiting to be redeveloped.

First, former Mayor Tom Murphy tried to redevelop it.

"That we can create an exciting addition to the North Side in that whole area," said Murphy when he was mayor in April of 2002.

Then, former mayors Bob O'Connor and Luke Ravenstahl tried to as well.

"This is a gateway to the rest of the North Side and we're starting to see some good, positive momentum," Ravenstahl said in May of 2011.

But after two decades of court fights, public debates and more than $5 million in public money, the Garden Theater and the block at Federal Street and North Avenue are still a sorry and blighted sight.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist and North Side resident Brian O'Neill remembers Murphy's fight to close and buy the Garden Theater, an infamous X-rated movie house.

But the owner fought the city all the way to the state Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds, arguing that his movies were protected free speech.

"Well, as you know, everybody who ever went into porn went into for the principle of the thing," said O'Neill.

The city spent more than a half million dollars in legal fees -- another $1.1 million to buy the Garden and a million more to buy the rest of the block. It was close to $3 million in all.

"A lot of lawyers were very happy, and then oddly, ironically, the number the city paid was obscene," O'Neill said.

The city did manage to help redevelop the Masonic Temple into the upscale Casellula Restaurant and Bar and the City of Asylum bookstore. But the rest of the block is on its fourth mayor and its fourth developer.

William Gatti, of Trek Development, wants to restore the façades of three of the buildings and build luxury apartments behind it. But some property owners complained that the building was too high and blocked the plan in Commonwealth Court.

KDKA's Andy Sheehan: "You sometimes feel that this block is cursed?"

Gatti: "Well, I can't really speak to its curse, but I know economic problems can be challenging."

If Gatti is forced to build a smaller building, he won't have the money to restore the façades.

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Kevin Acklin, Mayor Bill Peduto's chief-of-staff, says he will ask the foundations and preservationists community to come up with those funds and move the project forward.

"While it's been a long-term battle over several administrations and decades, here we are at the five-yard line and you do have alignment," Acklin said.

But while O'Neill would also like to save the façades, he seems to speak for many North Siders in wanting the project to move forward with or without them.

"I want something done, sooner rather than later. I don't want to wait another two decades," O'Neill said.

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