Empty Factory Within Station North Arts District Going Back to Work
After some two decades of disuse and decay, activity is slated to return to the erstwhile Lebow Clothing factory at Oliver and Barclay streets in Greenmount West.
"We are going to start to rebuild in two or three weeks, " says Abraham Zion, the building's New York-based owner. "We will start to repair the roof, put in new windows, and make the building safe."
Zion intends for the some 140,000-square-foot factory to initially house three different enterprises: A custom tailoring shop producing between 50 to 100 suits a week, an operation focused on cutting and polishing marble (which Zion says he currently operates in New York and will relocate to Baltimore), and a machine shop geared toward repairing the sewing equipment presently located within the building.
"I am an experienced industrialist," Zion says. "It will be no problem for me to operate it. We have enough money to do it."
Lebow lies within the 100-acre Station North Arts and Entertainment District, a 3-year-old state-led effort to spur art-focused renewal activity via promotion and artist-targeted tax incentives. Many of LeBow's neighboring factory buildings--including the immediately adjacent Copy Cat Building at 1501 Guilford Ave. --have foregone industrial usage to become live/work space for artists, a reuse facilitated by a planned unit development (PUD) ordinance passed last year allowing residential and commercial uses in the formerly industrially zoned area. (The Lebow building was not included within the parameters of the PUD, though it could easily be added.) Though Zion calls the Arts District concept a "good idea," he questions the feasibility of developing his property for artistic use, a concept he explored last year with the Washington-based firm, E.R. Bacon Development.
"We designed a so-called mixed-use arts colony, but the numbers did not show it would work--you would lose money," Zion says. "It would cost about $15 million, and it is not profitable."
Zion could not yet estimate the costs required to implement his industrial proposal, nor could he provide much solid information about his staffing requirement--beyond that the marble-cutting operation would be the largest employer, with around 50 workers. He will be looking for "good, key people locally" for his enterprises and says that there will be some opportunities to train workers from the neighborhood.
"But we are not coming in and saying we are going to put a lot of people to work," Zion cautions. "It would be wrong to say that."
Dennis Livingston, resident of the nearby Cork Factory artist co-op and board member of Greenmount West Community Development Corp., welcomes the possibility that folks might again be punching the clock at Lebow.
"What [Zion] is interested in doing is precisely what we'd like him to do," Livingston says. "He's interested in training people from the neighborhood for skilled blue-collar jobs."
Livingston adds that there are perhaps 100 vacant houses in Greenmount West that could serve as artists' live/work spaces. "Until we fill those houses up, there's no pressing need for more residential [development]," he says.
Artist Jim Vose, co-owner of a sizable factory building at 405 E. Oliver St. housing an art gallery and studios (and with residential space in the works), is eager to see the hulking, battered Lebow be reborn--but he's more guarded in his enthusiasm for Zion's plans.
"I've heard from various sources that he was getting ready to use the building for at least three years now," Vose says. "I just hope he really is. There are kids playing underneath windows in the building that are dropping glass. It's a hazard. Having the building occupied would be great for the neighborhood."
The arts-district designation has fostered increased city concern over the neighborhood's vacant or underutilized buildings. Pending City Council legislation gives the city the authority to use condemnation powers as a means to acquire two dozen such properties on the eastern side of the district. While the Lebow building is not yet a condemnation target, the Mayor's Advisory Board for the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, a volunteer group that promotes and guides the district's development, feels such a move would be beneficial.
"The consensus of the board seems to be that the city should acquire the [ Lebow] building and have it turned over [to new owners] for reinvestment and redevelopment," says board member and district resident/artist Roy Crosse.
Perhaps complicating matters, Zion brings with him a somewhat problematic track record when it comes to reopening shuttered factories. Zion has owned a very large glass factory in Jeannette, Pa., since the 1980s and, despite promises to the contrary, has yet to reopen the plant, which once employed more than 1,000 workers. His efforts have also been embroiled in controversy, everything from his alleged receipt of an unauthorized $600,000 state loan, to accusations that Zion inappropriately distributed gifts to key local officials. (The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote in 1997 that "Zion's dealing with Jeannette officials led to a storm of public controversy, several investigations by local and state agencies, the firing of the city solicitor and resignation of the mayor.") And just last fall, Zion settled a 9-year-old suit out of court, for an undisclosed sum, brought against him by a pair of Israeli scientists who had worked with the former Soviet Union's space program and came to Jeannette at Zion's urging to develop specialized unbreakable glass roof tiles. In the end, with the glassworks never seeing major redevelopment, the pair sued Zion for breach of contract, fraud, and defamation.
Zion says the Jeannette plant has reopened "on a small scale" and calls his Pennsylvania experiences "old news--old political problems," adding that he "won every case in court of law" brought against him regarding matters there.
All Livingston knows of Zion's perhaps prickly past comes via a few Google searches. He's not troubled by what he's learned. Not yet, anyway.
"We have no reason to be suspicious of anything," Livingston says. "He's not asking for anything at this point. All he's doing is offering contributions to the neighborhood. Now, if nothing happens, then it's a problem."
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