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(Photo special to Tube City Almanac)
Several lots that have been vacant since a disastrous Downtown fire more than 40 years ago could be the site of a new retail development.
The five lots at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Market Street, owned by the Redevelopment Authority of the City of McKeesport, have been purchased by area businessman Jon Stark, said A.J. Tedesco, the city's community development director.
Terms have not yet been made public, but Stark will ask the city's planning commission on May 16 to approve a proposal to consolidate the five lots into one.
Stark is a partner or owner of several nearby businesses, including Compulsive Paintball; a custom countertop company, Lexmar USA; and Legion Arms, all located on Market Street, less than a block away.
"I've been accused of having rose-colored glasses more than once," Stark said in a phone interview. "I see a lot of problems (Downtown) but I also see progress."
At least one well-known tenant is interested in the site, he said, but added that it's too early to identify them.
Stark is waiting on bids from contractors before knowing whether the project will move forward, but said soil tests at the site were promising.
"Until I pick a (contractor), anything could happen," he said, "but I would not have proceeded as far as I have without thinking it will be a done deal."
Above: The McKee Cinemas, McKeesport National Bank and other damaged buildings are shown in a photo taken a few days after the 1976 fire. (Tube City Community Media Inc. collection)
Until May 21, 1976, the lots were the site of the McKee Cinemas (formerly the Memorial Theater), Kadar's Men's Wear, Farmer's Pride poultry shop, the Coney Grill and a McKeesport National Bank branch.
But on that day, a demolition crew working at the old Famous Department Store next to the Penn-McKee Hotel accidentally started a fire. The blaze quickly spread along Fifth Avenue, causing $5 million damage --- about $22 million in 2018 figures --- to the city's business district.
Most of the damaged buildings were torn down immediately, but the vacant McKee Cinemas sat empty until 1985, when it, too, was demolished.
Stark said he was worried that demolition debris from the old buildings had been left behind, but tests proved the land is more or less "clean fill."
If the site was full of demolition debris, "it was going to cost too much to be suitable for our purposes," he said.
Originally published May 01, 2018.