Proposed center discussed again

Several residents concerned about the Salvation Army’s plans to build a new worship center in Bellevue once again addressed Bellevue Council at Tuesday’s regular council meeting.

At the pre-council meeting two weeks ago, the Salvation Army presented plans to spend $8 million to build a worship center on the site now occupied by the old Lutheran church at 440 Lincoln Ave., across from Bellevue Elementary School. The building has been owned since 1996 by The Lutheran Service Society, which provides programming for senior citizens at its PrimeTime Center. That center will move to another location in Bellevue.

The Salvation Army has proposed demolition of the current building and construction of a new building that will, according to Salvation Army development director Fran Brace, primarily serve as a worship center, but also will feature a full kitchen, gymnasium and meeting rooms that will be used to provide services for children and families. The Salvation Army has already contacted the Northgate School District and the North Boroughs YMCA to see what programming might best benefit the community.

Although Bellevue officials have been meeting with Salvation Army officials since last August, the community at large did not become aware of the project until the presentation earlier this month. Mayor Paul Cusick, who said he had been involved in meetings with the Salvation Army along with the director of administrative services and the borough’s code enforcement officer, said that the Salvation Army had asked for confidentiality until it could present the project to council, originally planned to occur in January or February. Brace said that the Salvation Army was asked by Lutheran Services not to make the proposal public until it could secure a new location and inform its clients of the move.

Council member Tom Fodi argued that council, at least, could have been informed of the proposal at an executive session closed to the public. Solicitor Matt Racunas said that council could not meet in secret concerning the sale of property to which the borough was not actually a party.

“It’s not the borough’s real estate,” Racunas said.

He also explained to the public that no formal application for a building or demolition permit has been submitted to the borough, and that even when that does occur, the borough has limited jurisdiction to interfere in any project that is in compliance with the zoning code.

“There are aspects of this plan that are out of council’s control,” Racunas said.

Cusick said that the “ground-breaking” ceremony planned for May is purely ceremonial, and part of the Salvation Army’s fund-raising efforts.

Resident Ken Holmes, of Ridge Avenue, said that he felt the Salvation Army center would be “a nice asset for Bellevue,” but he did not want to lose the current building due to its historical and architectural significance. Holmes said that he volunteers with the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

Cusick, however, said that the LSS director had reported that the current building is structurally unsound, and the cost of basic repair alone would cost $1.5 million. That is why LSS preferred to sell the building, Cusick said.

The Salvation Army’s plans call for stones from the current building to be used as part of the foundation for the new building.

Resident Michael Kendall also said that he liked the project, but not the location. He suggested that the Salvation Army collaborate with the YMCA to build the new center on the YMCA property located in the 600 block of Lincoln Avenue, near the Starr Avenue intersection. Parking lots that are part of the Allegheny Health Network property, formerly the location of Suburban General Hospital, could be used, he said.

North Howard Avenue resident David Blenk said that the building, which will be built at the end of the street where he lives, was just too big for the available space and would add to parking congestion already a problem because of the elementary school.

The Salvation Army’s plans include 15 off-street parking spaces, which is the number required by Bellevue’s zoning laws for a worship center. Council member Grant Saylor, however, pointed out that if the building is considered a community center instead, it would be required to provide 50 off-street parking spaces. It is unlikely that the lot could accommodate a parking lot that size along with the planned building.

Resident Jodi Hause, of North Euclid Avenue, who later in the meeting was appointed to the joint planning commission, suggested that Bellevue spend the coming months making changes to zoning laws in order to restrict what could be built on the property.