2/27/2007

Store owner worrying about move: Philadelphia PA Inquirer, 2/22/07

Buck’s Hardware: What will we be paid to vacate for the Convention Center expansion?

By Tom Belden

After 66 years at 13th and Cherry Streets, the owner of Buck's Hardware Inc. was not surprised to get a condemnation notice to make way for a $700 million expansion of the nearby Convention Center.

Unlike other property owners in the vicinity, John Buck Jr. wasn't going to just pack up his memories and move away. He wanted to stay in business in the neighborhood, so he bought a new location a block and a half away.

But Buck is jittery these days, worried that the city Redevelopment Authority is moving so slowly on buying his property that it could mean serious financial hardship if the sale of his current location does not close soon. The agency said Buck shouldered some of the blame for the pace because he was the only property owner who had challenged the purchase process.

"We agree the Convention Center needs to be bigger, but we're getting trampled in the process," Buck said last week, standing amid some of the 11,000 nuts, bolts, and other hardware items that he wants to pack up and move to the new location, at 218 N. 13th St.

Some of Buck's concern is shared by officials at the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, who say that the massive construction project to enlarge the building is on a tight timetable to be completed by the end of 2009. The first large group to use the expanded center, the National Science Teachers Association, is scheduled to bring 18,000 people here in March 2010.

But Redevelopment Authority officials say their part of the state-funded project - spending $180 million to acquire the land and demolish the buildings on it - is on schedule.

The city agency is managing the acquisition and demolition at the insistence of Gov. Rendell, who controls the release of money approved by the legislature to pay for it, because it has experience condemning abandoned real estate in the city. The expansion is the largest single capital-improvement project ever funded by the state.

"Right now, we're pretty much on schedule with our services for the commonwealth," Nick Dema, the agency's deputy director, said last week.

The Redevelopment Authority has completed sales agreements with owners of 15 of the 17 parcels in the path of expansion, which stretches from 13th Street to Broad Street, between Arch and Race Streets, Dema said. The main portion of the building now spans the area between 11th, 13th, Arch and Race.

Preparing the land for expansion needs to stay on schedule, starting this spring with selecting a demolition contractor, because construction is expected to take at least 28 months. That work needs to start by late summer to be completed by December 2009, Convention Center officials said.

Enlarging the center will give it almost twice as much exhibit and meeting space, which the region's convention promoters and political leaders say is necessary for Philadelphia to compete with other large East Coast cities.

Given what has been completed in the land-acquisition process, "we are already kind of pushing the limit" to finish on time, said Albert Mezzaroba, chief executive officer of the Convention Center Authority.

Besides Buck, the only landowner who has not reached a sales agreement or settled with the Redevelopment Authority is Myron Berman, owner of a late-19th-century office building at 121 N. Broad St. Berman has contended for more than three years that his building could be incorporated into the structure of the planned, two-block-long facade along Broad, but Convention Center officials have rejected his idea.

John Buck's dispute with the Redevelopment Authority is over the value of his property, how much it will cost for him to move, and when he will be paid for both.

Buck's property has been appraised at $845,000, but the former printing company building he has purchased for his new location, a block and a half away on 13th between Race and Vine Streets, cost $1.175 million, he said. He borrowed an additional $106,000 for a down payment on the new building and was expecting settlement by early January, he said.

Redevelopment officials said last week that they were waiting for completion of an environmental assessment of Buck's building, which could affect the sale price if there is a need for remediation of any contaminants found.

The agency contends that Buck has slowed the property transfer by challenging the settlement process. Buck is scheduled to meet with authority officials today to discuss the situation. Buck said yesterday that he was hoping to learn how much money he can expect to get for moving the stock in the store, as well as fixtures like antique oak display cabinets for which the store is known.

"We can't seem to find out what the relocation compensation would be," he said. "We want to know what the whole package is, not just the real estate end of it."

Redevelopment Authority spokesman Frank Keel said the agency did not pay relocation expenses until after a property owner had moved because it was difficult to accurately determine what the compensation should be until the move had been completed.

Redevelopment officials said the $845,000 offered for the building represents its fair-market value. Any property owners who disagree with an offer can appeal to the city's Board of View, a panel appointed by the Board of Revision of Taxes. If the property owner still is not satisfied, the appeal can be taken to the Court of Common Pleas.

Convention Center officials, who have no role in the property-acquisition process, still have an interest in what happens to Buck's Hardware because of its popularity with many of the exhibitors at trade shows and conventions. Each time an exhibitor needs a few more nails or a screwdriver to finish putting a booth together, Buck's is only a few steps away.

The hardware store, which has been run by four generations of Buck family members, is the only business now in the path of expansion that plans to stay in the area around the center.

"The Convention Center is the most important project this region has done in the last 10 years," Mezzaroba said. "But we can't let our neighborhood businesses suffer."


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