Century III Mall

https://triblive.com/business/century-iii-mall-owners-joust-with-allegheny-county-da-over-razing-blighted-property/?fbclid=IwAR05OfxhwK-LkMDGFF26KJkEFY9XoIFvpZv3H1S30busnxzOi3-02V-iKsY

The owners of the blighted Century III Mall said in court papers filed this week that they have contracted with a company to raze the property, but they claim that the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office is interfering with their ability to carry out the demolition.

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Friday.

The owners, Century III Mall PA LLC, have asked to postpone the hearing, scheduled before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jill E. Rangos, but the district attorney’s office refused to consent.

The owners now accuse District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. of purposely interfering in their business relations.

In January, Zappala filed criminal charges against the mall’s owners, including causing or risking a catastrophe and making a public nuisance, with the aim of seizing ownership of the 1.3-million-square-foot building to have it demolished.

Steven Townsend, the lawyer who represents the mall in the criminal case, wrote in a court filing Thursday that the “commonwealth is refusing to cooperate and accept the exact relief requested in its petition — abatement of the nuisance.”

First Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Spangler, the DA’s spokeswoman, said she could not comment.

Century III Mall, which opened in 1979 as a shopping destination in West Mifflin, was bought at a sheriff’s sale in 2013 for $10.5 million.

In the years since, it fell into disrepair until its last store, JC Penney, closed in October 2020. The property has continually deteriorated from fire and deferred maintenance. The roof has fallen in, and parking structures have collapsed.

From February 2019 to January 2024, West Mifflin police received 177 calls for service at the property, and a structure fire there in April required more than 100 firefighters to put it out.

Then in June, a teenager fell through the roof.

The DA’s office said in a court filing that the mall, once one of the biggest shopping centers in the world, has now become one of the most popular trespassing destinations for people identifying themselves as “urban explorers.”

The owners have been repeatedly fined for the conditions there. A fine in July was for $240,000.

In addition to filing criminal charges, the DA’s office also filed a petition for a temporary restraining order in the case.

The petition seeks to have the property razed and outlines two potential phases. In the first, the demolition and remediation work would go out for bid. Then, the contract would be awarded to the lowest bidder and the state would have to obtain the funds to do the work.

A second potential phase would include new infrastructure, development and sale of the property.

But the mall’s owners said in their Thursday court filing that the DA’s office has no funds secured to raze the property.

In the meantime, the owners have an active application pending with the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, which provides grant money for projects that maintain or increase levels of employment and tax revenue.

“Without sufficient funds to begin the demolition, the commonwealth would need to request funding from the General Assembly or other public tax-funded resources, which request, if granted, would arguably take months if not years to obtain,” Townsend wrote.

That, he said, is counter to what the district attorney’s stated goals were in demolishing the property to ensure public safety.

According to Townsend’s motion, the demolition contract submitted by the mall’s owners for “immediate phased razing” renders the issue moot.

“Instead of fostering cooperation to further the goals of the public, petitioner is thwarting any action toward abatement,” Townsend wrote.

The request to postpone the hearing, Townsend said, is so the property owners can show their “good faith commitment to razing the property.”

But West Mifflin Mayor Chris Kelly said he thinks that the hearing should go on as scheduled.

“The next time (they) tell me anything that’s truthful, it will be the first time,” Kelly said of the mall’s owners. “I won’t believe that until I see the big ball swinging and knocking down the building.”

The owners approached the borough for a demolition permit on Wednesday, but Kelly said he is still not convinced.

In the past, he said, the mall’s owners have told borough officials that they would repair roads on the property and the building’s fire suppression system. But, he said, they never did.

“I don’t believe anything (they) say,” Kelly said. “I have no faith in them.”

Paula Reed Ward is a TribLive reporter covering federal and Allegheny County courts. She joined the Trib in 2019 after spending nearly 17 years at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where she was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team. She is the author of “Death by Cyanide.” She can be reached at pward@triblive.com.