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Friday, April 18, 2014

Thunderbird expansion grounded as debate returns to court

Posted By on Fri, Apr 18, 2014 at 10:01 AM

Be advised, Lawrenceville residents and fans of live local music: It may be a long time before an expansion of the Thunderbird Cafe takes flight. That's assuming it ever does: The dispute is now back in the courts.

The popular Butler Street bar and music venue has been in a long-running dispute with neighbors about owner John Pergal's plan to expand the club's capacity. Neighbors worried about impacts on parking, traffic, and quality of life, and two community groups, Lawrenceville United and the Lawrenceville Corporation, challenged a city Zoning Board ruling that allowed Pergal's proposal to proceed. The matter ended up in Allegheny County Common Pleas court. When we last checked in on the saga, it seemed that a resolution might be hand: The Thunderbird and residents had apparently worked out at least the framework of a deal. But while neither side knew it, the judge handling the case, Joseph James, had already found in favor of the community groups. The order was dated the day before the bargain had been struck, but only filed the day after; the parties learned of the order from City Paper.

At the time, Thunderbird attorney Mitchel Zemel said he hoped the neighborhood groups "will follow through on what they've agreed to," even after James' ruling. Instead, the issue is back in court.

Both sides of the dispute say they met after digesting the judge's order. But while neither wanted to describe the discussion in detail, it was clear that for the community groups, the deal was off. So, Zemel says, "We've proceeded with the appeal."

Zemel has asked James to reconsider his ruling, while simultaneously appealing it to the state's Commonwealth Court. In a legal brief, the Thunderbird argues that James wrongly decided the Thunderbird should be categorized as a "Recreation and Entertainment, Indoor" use -- which has stricter requirements for parking -- rather than a more lenient "Restaurant-General" use. The brief also argues that the community groups should be held to the terms of the agreement -- which, the brief notes, was "unanimously approved" by neighborhood groups.

In a written response, the neighborhood groups repeat an argument their attorney, Tom Madigan, first made to City Paper: that the "agreement" was much less firm than the Thunderbird claims. "While the parties were able to agree on some issues, they had not reached agreement on all issues under discussion before the Court issued its ... opinion," Madigan argues in the brief. There were, for example, still concerns about parking. Further, Madigan writes, any agreed-upon provisions might be moot in any case, to the extent that they are contrary to James' ruling.

Zemel counters, "I think if the parties had gone to the judge to discuss the agreement, that wouldn't be the case."

But Zemel sees little prospect for an out-of-court settlement now. "There doesn't seem to be any usefulness for discussing this particular proposal. It's just a matter for the courts." And while Zemel couldn't predict how far an appeal might go, "There's no quick resolution on the horizon."

Lauren Byrne, the executive director of Lawrenceville United, agrees the project is in limbo, which complicates the job of sustaining the neighborhood's momentum. But, she says, "The great thing is that a lot of people enjoy the Thunderbird as it is now. And this whole issue is making us think about what we need in terms of changes to zoning, and what type of vision we have for the neighborhood."

The Thunderbird's fate is "definitely a hot topic, but we know it could go on for years," she says. And while "we're always open to discussion" with Pergal, "our attorney has told us this is a slow process. And right now it doesn't seem like there's any movement."

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