At nearly five city blocks long, the Pennsylvania Fruit and Auction, known to locals as the Produce Terminal, is hard to miss. It sits along Smallman Street between 16th and 20th and seems to watch over the business on Penn Avenue.
But unlike the bustling retail happening in front of it, the Produce Terminal is largely vacant. It’s an unusual state for the building, considering that for several decades before, it was the ultimate spot for the wholesale produce business.
Jimmy Sunseri, 65, owns Sunseri’s in the Strip District with his brother Nino. He started working at his father’s Italian-American dry goods shop when he was 13 years old and said he remembers the Produce Terminal being chaotic and competitive.
“I’ve never been anywhere else that even reminds me of it,” Sunseri said. “You’d be walking up the terminal and there’d be guys with power jacks, fork lifts, running up and down the hallway there. You had to have you wits about you because otherwise you’d get run over.”
But the pandemonium many merchants remember at the docks didn’t materialize overnight. Heinz History Center curator Lauren Uhl said the land where the building sits used to look much different.
“In the early 1800s, it was like most of the land around here, pastoral,” Uhl said. “Downtown ended at about 11th Street, probably not even quite out that far, and from 11th Street on, it was orchards.”
At the time the main produce distribution center was along Liberty Avenue downtown. But as the city grew, officials decided to tear up the tracks downtown, forcing distributors to make a choice.
“The produce merchant starts to move out,” Uhl said. “A small contingent of them goes to the Mon Wharf, near the river, but the rest of them start to move into the Strip District because there’s already a lot of train traffic there because of industry.”
Uhl said some of the first mills had occupied the space where the Strip District is today and when they got too big and moved further down the rivers, wholesalers bought up many of the buildings that remained.
The Produce Terminal was built in 1929 and quickly filled up. The city was experiencing an influx of immigrants at the time, many of whom decided to find work in the produce business.
"The people that came down here were all first, second generation,” Sunseri said. “They were all very hard workers. To them, a penny was a dollar. I mean, they worked hard for their money.”
Like Sunseri, Ronald Casertano’s first job as a teenager was at the terminal. Now he works at Consumers Produce, one of the last standing wholesale markets in the Strip. Casertano said when he was at the docks in the 1970s, most of the produce was unloaded, sold and distributed before the sun came up.
“Everybody closed on Friday morning by 11 o’clock and that was the end of the week,” Casertano said.
Retail now dominates much of Penn Avenue, especially on the weekends. Uhl said this change didn’t happen until the 1980s, when a new generation of Pittsburghers and tourists seemed to rediscover the neighborhood.
“It was sort of the next wave of, just starting to gentrify, people starting to notice the Strip District as a kind of cool place,” Uhl said. “The wholesalers that have been here a long time are starting to open up some retail stores and that’s driving some buyers to the area.”
At the same time, industry consolidation, suburbanization and the construction of interstate highways made it hard for little corner stores to keep up with major grocery chains. Without those little stores, most of the Strip’s wholesalers had to move out.
“Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, we probably had about 30 different companies here,” Casertano said. “Then those 30 became 15, and those 15 became six, and those six became three.”
The city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority took ownership of the Produce Terminal in the 1980s. In recent years, interest had been directed toward finding a new use for the building.
Kevin Acklin, chairman of the URA and chief of staff for Mayor Bill Peduto, has overseen much of the process for finding a developer and constructing a rehabilitation plan. He said he’s solicited community input for the project, but fixing a building as old as the terminal is complicated.
“If we are going to develop it, you should retain some of that social equity investment back to the public,” Acklin said. “We don’t want to create a situation where vendors on Penn Avenue, who have been there for several decades, are suddenly priced out of their storefronts because of what we’re doing to the terminal building.”
Acklin said one developer suggested putting in some big box retail stores, but the city feared that might take away from the Penn Avenue businesses. Another proposal advocated for demolishing a third of the building to open access to the riverfront, but according to Acklin, the city didn’t want that either.
Ultimately the URA went with Chicago-based firm McCaffery Interests. The company is best known for its work rehabilitating the old Armstrong Cork Factory into lofts along the Allegheny River. Current plans for the Produce Terminal project include expanded sidewalks, infrastructure upgrades, a European-style plaza, restaurants and incubator office space.
The URA suggested using about $7.5 million in public funds to pay for the project through tax incremental financing, or TIF. The idea was rejected at a recent Pittsburgh Public School Board meeting. The board, along with Allegheny County officials, would need to approve the decision.
Acklin said he wants to make sure decisions are made thoughtfully, especially because the terminal is a public asset.
“Our development strategy has been how to respect the history and character of the produce terminal when we’re trying to unlock our riverfronts and convert it from, historically, and industrial use there on the Allegheny, to a place where people and families will come and live and work and play,” Acklin said.
Later this month, the school board will again vote on the URA’s proposal, which would green light a significant portion of funding. Acklin said the project is “at the point where the rubber meets the road.” A motion to work with the city on upgrading the infrastructure along Smallman Street was approved by the URA last week.