Pitt to obtain former Syria Mosque property from UPMC for $10 million

by Jonathan Adams

A committee of University of Pittsburgh trustees today approved acquisition of the former Syria Mosque property in the heart of the school’s Oakland campus from UPMC for $10 million.

The vote by the Property and Facilities Committee involves 2.1 acres of undeveloped land just north of Fifth Avenue between Bigelow Boulevard and Lytton Avenue. Decades ago, the property was ground zero for one of the roughest land preservation fights in city history.

The site already is zoned Educational/Medical/Institutional (EMI), which facilitates university usage of the property, Pitt said in a statement released minutes after the mid-afternoon vote.

“The University continually monitors the local real-estate market for strategic opportunities to acquire buildings or land that are in close proximity to any of its University campuses and suitable to support and advance the University’s mission,” said Art Ramicone, senior vice chancellor, chief financial officer, and interim senior executive vice chancellor for business and operations. “Opportunities such as this, to acquire property of this nature in Oakland, are extremely scarce.”

Pitt administrators have been assessing potential uses but have no plan at present. The university will need to submit any plan to the city for approval, officials said.

“Given its location, the property could potentially support a number of different uses including, among others, the creation of innovative space to support new collaborations among faculty, students, and partners inside or outside the region,” Mr. Ramicone said. “Determining the specific use of the property will involve a number of planning stages and approvals within the University. Throughout the planning, we will continue to work with the community and the City of Pittsburgh to follow all of the city’s planning requirements.”

Pitt’s statement said UPMC’s board obtained necessary approvals for the sale.

The trustee panel’s action sends the acquisition to the board’s Budget Committee to be added to Pitt’s capital budget, officials said. Money for the purchase will be taken from Pitt Property Acquisition Fund.

The Syria Mosque concert hall was a 3,700-seat, ornate, faux-Middle Eastern-style building. It was razed a quarter century ago after a huge controversy.

It stood for nearly 75 years on Bigelow Boulevard, across the street from Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and behind the Pittsburgh Athletic Association buildings. Artists from Frank Sinatra to Yul Brynner and the Cure performed there.

The building was owned by the Shriners, which had it taken down to sell the 2 acres of land under it to UPMC, then known as Presbyterian University Health System. The sale price then was $10 million.

The Shriners wanted to save the structure but could not afford the need upgrade and maintenance. The hospital system tried to conceal its role as buyer for months in 1991 — until it was forcibly revealed during a court hearing.

Jim Ferlo, then a Pittsburgh city councilman, and three fellow supporters were arrested on the morning of Aug. 27, 1991, as bulldozers moved in on the property.

Currently the site holds parking.

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