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DA Files Charges Against Century III Owner

Borough, Zappala working to compel demolition of one-time West Mifflin landmark

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
January 30, 2024
Posted in: State & Region

Water covers an entrance to Century III Mall in this 2018 photo. District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. called the abandoned West Mifflin shopping center “the poster boy” for blight in Western Pennsylvania. (Photo by Quackerkats via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-Generic)

Calling it “something out of a disaster movie,” Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. on Tuesday announced that he will seek criminal charges against the owners of Century III Mall in an attempt to compel them to demolish the property or sell it.

“They clearly have no intention of doing anything with the property as it exists,” Zappala said at a press conference. “They have abandoned this property.”

Zappala said he is hoping that a hearing can be held within 60 to 90 days.

Separately, Zappala’s office went to an Allegheny County judge on Tuesday seeking a temporary restraining order against the mall’s owners.

West Mifflin Mayor Chris Kelly said the borough asked Zappala’s office to become involved.

“For 10 years we’ve been hunting for (someone) who will listen,” Kelly said. “This has affected the tax base in the area and has put our first responders at needless risk.”

The last stores inside of Century III closed in 2019 after borough officials cited the property for having no functional sprinkler system and no heat and declared it unsafe and uninhabitable.

The last remaining store connected to the mall, a J.C. Penney, closed in October 2020.

Since then, West Mifflin officials allege, the mall has been largely left open to the elements, vandals and so-called urban explorers. In April 2023, a fire broke out on the third floor. The blaze was later ruled arson. The roof over that section of the mall has since collapsed, borough officials said.

Borough council voted in July 2023 to condemn the property. The mall’s owners are appealing the condemnation.

Zappala on Tuesday cited the legal owner, Century III Mall PA LLC, with causing or risking a catastrophe and creating a public nuisance.

“This is a monument to blight,” he said. “This is the poster boy.”

Zappala said the case will be difficult to prosecute because of the web of shell companies that control the Century III Mall corporation, but added that outside attorneys have been retained to pierce the ownership structure.

All of the legal entities, he said, are linked back to the same address in Las Vegas — that of Moonbeam Capital Investments LLC, which lists the mall on its website and has promised to remodel and market the property since purchasing it at a sheriff’s sale in 2013.

Zappala said that investigators believe that five individuals are behind all of the entities in the chain of ownership.

“Moonbeam has misled us, blatantly lied, given us false hopes, false promises,” Kelly said, “and as a community, we’ve suffered — not just us, but the surrounding communities.”

Moonbeam’s website on Tuesday carried the message that the mall had been “sold!” but no real-estate transfer has been recorded by Allegheny County.

Emails sent by Tube City Almanac to Moonbeam Capital Investments seeking comment bounced or went unanswered.

Phone messages left for Moonbeam and for a Pittsburgh attorney who has previously represented Century III Mall in court were not immediately returned.

An abandoned entrance to Century III Mall. (Photo by Macwagen via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed)

Zappala said he has met with both Democratic and Republican members of the state senate and house to seek emergency funding to demolish the structure.

The cost has been estimated at $12 million to $13 million, he said.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro is also interested in seeing the Century III Mall property cleared, Zappala said.

“The commonwealth is entitled to the abatement of this nuisance,” he said. Due to the complexity of the case and the value of the real estate, Zappala said the county is not expecting it to move quickly.

“In the first phase, we will seek the demolition of the property,” Zappala said. If public money is necessary to tear down the mall, he said, the value of the demolition would be liened against the land.

In the second phase, Zappala said, the county would seek to sell the now-vacant 90-acre site. Preliminary estimates have valued the property — once the vacant mall is demolished — at $32 million to $40 million, he said.

In that scenario, the property could be sold at sheriff’s sale or public auction to satisfy the lien, Zappala said.

“This is some of the most prime real estate in the South Hills and in Allegheny County,” he said. “What possible upside is there to keeping this building? I can find none. This looks like something out of a disaster movie.”

He joked that he was surprised that Hollywood has not sought out Century III “to film a zombie movie.”

Kelly and Zappala said there has been discussion of creating a public authority — to include representatives of West Mifflin and neighboring communities, such as Pleasant Hills and Jefferson Hills — to redevelop the site.

Zappala said his office and West Mifflin are not closing the door to allowing Moonbeam to tear down the mall and sell the property “if they choose to become better citizens to the residents of the South Hills.”

“Whether it’s sold at a (public) auction or whether it’s sold by the owners, I don’t care,” Zappala said.

In the meantime, Kelly said West Mifflin police are continuing to prosecute anyone caught trespassing on the mall property, including “urban explorers” who enter abandoned buildings and document their adventures online.

“We just wish people would stop,” Kelly said. “Go to YouTube and look at the videos. They even have their names on them. We want them to stop. We’re trying to get the message across.”

A teen-ager who was exploring the mall in June 2023 fell through the roof of the former Kaufmann’s/Macy’s store and had to be flown to UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Zappala blamed Moonbeam for allowing the “explorers” to continue.

Century III Mall has become “a combination of an urban legend and an attractive nuisance,” Zappala said. “We’re getting more and more people coming in, more frequently, we’re getting more and more calls about more dangerous situations.”

West Mifflin police, fire and emergency medical responders will no longer enter the mall without hazardous material protections, he said.

“Once this becomes a construction or demolition site it will become much better protected, ironically,” Zappala said.

Jason Togyer is editor of Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc.

Originally published January 30, 2024.

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