Bar owner on Liberty Avenue threatened by URA purchase — Pittsburgh (PA) Post-Gazette, 1/4/05

By Mark Belko

Denise Gaynor took a chance and bought the Liberty Tavern in 1998 at a time when the eastern end of Liberty Avenue, Downtown, was populated by "prostitutes and drugs."

Now, seven years later, Gaynor could lose her restaurant, which stands in the path of the proposed African American Cultural Center, just as the area is undergoing a rebirth with completion of the new David L. Lawrence Convention Center, a new hotel and new businesses.

Somehow it doesn't seem fair to Gaynor, whose purchase of the tavern culminated a childhood dream to own a restaurant.

"Basically, I did the city good for seven years and now, all of the sudden, you're out. I don't think that's fair," she said.

"I came in to this end of town when nobody else wanted to go here. I took a chance and got out a lot of the debris in the area and feel really strongly about being in the area."

Gaynor is being forced to move her restaurant from 972 Liberty Ave. by the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority, which acquired the building as part of Pittsburgh's efforts to assemble land for the cultural center.

The URA paid $525,000 to owner William Zotis for the building, a price set through legal proceedings before the Board of Viewers. The building was assessed at $226,700, according to Allegheny County's real estate Web site.

The URA gained possession Dec. 23. Five days later, it notified Gaynor that it was terminating her lease and that she had at least 90 days before being required to move.

Although URA officials pledged yesterday to help Gaynor relocate her restaurant, she fears that rents in other buildings along Liberty Avenue will be much higher than she can afford. She said her own informal check found them to be double for half as much square footage.

Gaynor wants to remain on Liberty near the convention center because she also owns the Tonic Bar & Grill, which she opened in April 2003, across the street from the Liberty Tavern.

She said she does not want to move across town or into another city neighborhood or the suburbs. Instead of doing that, Gaynor said she probably would close the restaurant.

And if she does, she believes she should be compensated for her business, just as Zotis was compensated for his property.

"If they have the money to take the property, why don't they fairly reimburse me for the loss of the business?" she asked. "If I'm being kicked out, someone should have to buy my business."

Susan Malys, URA real estate manager, said there are no such provisions under the federal uniform relocation act or under state eminent domain laws. But Malys said Gaynor is eligible for other assistance, including moving expenses and up to $10,000 in "reestablishment" payments over two years to help in getting started at a new location. That money could be used to subsidize higher rent payments, she said.

If Gaynor decides to close the restaurant, the URA will reimburse her for business-related personal property, such as equipment. She also would be eligible for a lump sum payment of $20,000 in lieu of moving expenses.

Malys said the URA is willing to work with Gaynor to find another location. She said the agency talked to her once after doing a preliminary relocation survey in 2003 and plans to do so again now that it has control of the building.

"I don't think we'll have too much of a problem finding comparable space at a comparable rent," she said.

As for accommodating her on Liberty, Malys said she knows there are some vacancies in the area, but declined to comment further until she had a chance to talk to the restaurant owner to "see what her preferences are."

For her part, Gaynor said she's willing to work with the URA to find another spot, but fears it may be for naught.

"I don't see how there's any way they're going to be able to relocate me in a comparable spot," she said.

She said one possible solution would be to give her first-floor space in the cultural center. Officials have been considering a restaurant as part of the complex.

Gaynor and her husband came to Pittsburgh 12 years ago so he could attend the University of Pittsburgh. She worked two jobs so that she could save enough to buy her own restaurant.

She purchased the Liberty Tavern at a time when there was little else at that end of town. She said she "lived there 24/7 and kept kicking people out who were not paying customers. When I bought it, it was bad. We had to work a long hard road to get where I'm at."

With the purchase of the building at 972 Liberty, the URA has acquired all but one parcel needed for the cultural center. The holdout is the building housing the Chez Kimberly strip club, at 966 Liberty. Those negotiations have proven to be challenging, especially in regard to trying to find another spot in the city for the club.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: www.post-gazette.com