A public safety hazard. Dilapidated and deteriorating. A nuisance and a blight on the community.
The more than 50 residents and members of the media who crowded into the West Mifflin Borough Council chambers for the two-hour Century III Mall condemnation hearing Wednesday heard those descriptions and warnings from officials and residents testifying about the closed 1.3 million-square-foot structure.
The borough’s community development director, police chief, a fire chief and borough code enforcement officer, and an Allegheny County deputy fire marshal all testified about the condition of the building, which they said has deteriorated further since a fire there on April 11. Further, trespassers keep entering the building, with a teenager suffering serious injuries on June 3 when he fell through a damaged section of the roof.
Solicitor Greg Evashavik explained to the crowd as the meeting began that council would collect evidence to study and review, then vote on the condemnation at a future meeting.
Shawl Pryor Sr., the chief operating officer since 2015 for Century III Mall PA LLC, an apparent division of Moonbeam Capital Investments LLC, which purchased the bankrupt mall in 2013, and an engineer hired by it also testified. Pryor said his company has been working with a number of potential buyers and a sale is under contract to a company he was not permitted to identify. The company has also hired a security firm for an additional officer to patrol the property, Pryor said, so it now has 24-7 coverage.
Walter “Butch” Anthony, the community development director, offered a timeline of the borough’s dealings with the mall, starting in 2013 when Pryor promised that his company was going to renovate the mall and attract new tenants, which Anthony said never happened. In 2015 sections of its parking area deteriorated and had to be closed, and in 2018 the borough cited the mall for tall grass and other maintenance issues, fining it $80,000. That fine was not appealed, Anthony said, and has not been paid.
More serious issues Anthony detailed: In 2018 a fire suppression system water line froze and flooded the former Macy’s building, and in November that year the borough closed the private road the mall owns, as it had not repaired the road and failed to salt and plow it, causing hazardous driving conditions. The mall told all its few remaining indoor tenants to leave after another frozen fire suppression line froze and flooded another area of the mall. On April 11, another fire in a second-floor supply closet went up through the roof.
Anthony said the mall owners have boarded up the structure, the only security action taken, and “obviously that wasn’t enough.”
Photographs showed the green and black mold on the flooring and walls, shattered glass, drywall hanging, wires exposed, a damaged elevator with an open 8-foot pit, and steps to the roof with an open hatch, apparently one of the trespassers’ access points.
Anthony said the borough has found 36 videos posted to TikTok, YouTube and Instagram of people, some calling themselves urban explorers, entering the mall since it was closed in 2019 and posted as unsafe.
His conclusion is the mall’s owners have violated the borough’s property maintenance code, and it should be demolished.
He and the other borough officials called the mall a public nuisance and a strain on the borough’s police and fire departments.
Jeff Youkers, chief of Skyview Volunteer Fire Co. and a borough code enforcement officer, said since 2018 his firefighters have responded to 18 calls at the mall, including two structure fires — one in 2018 when a transformer blew and took out electrical service and the April 11 fire when 100 firefighters responded from his and nearby fire companies.
The cracks in the roof forced him to move some of the firefighters for their safety initially, he said, and the mold and other internal conditions placed them at further risk. Youkers said they won’t go in again without proper protective equipment. He also recommended that the mall be razed.
Allegheny County Chief Deputy Fire Marshal Donald Brucker testified that the 2023 fire is still under investigation, although an electrical cause has been discounted. His office is reviewing some of the videos posted and other photographs to trace the perpetrators, which has been difficult. He agreed with Youkers that the mall is unsafe because of the significant roof openings caused by the fire and other hazards, and the structure is not secure, either.
Police Chief Gregory McCulloch said his force has answered 177 calls at the mall since February 2019, mainly for trespassing, vandalism and destruction. He said other incidents have gone unreported, including a mall maintenance employee telling him about “a man with a long gun walking through the mall and shooting out the windows.” The employee didn’t want any officers or the man killed, the chief said.
The mall’s condition delayed his department’s response to the juvenile who fell and injured himself this month, as well as the medics who were called to treat him.
McCulloch called the mall a public safety hazard and said his department had another call the night before the hearing that someone had entered it. He said mall management has done nothing to remediate or clean up the mall, and the only security measure was boarding up the entrances.
“It’s horrendous,” he said. The chief said he has seen photographs but “when you see it, it’s twice as bad.”
Greg Wagner of KLH Engineers, the firm retained by the borough, testified about the water coming through the roof and broken skylights into the mall and the damage to the joints and other structure from the fire. He said the areas of the mall are “in danger of imminent collapse.”
An engineer hired by the mall had an opposite view. Michael Wuerthele of MBCM Engineers, said he reviewed photographs and spent 3½ hours inspecting inside and outside the mall, and he believed it is mostly structurally sound and could be remediated. In his estimation the damage from the fire was confined to an isolated portion. Under cross examination from Evashavik, he said his inspection was visual with no actual testing.
During his testimony, Pryor acknowledged the vandalism and damage to the mall, which he said he has reviewed himself. But he doesn’t know the complete extent of the damage, and if the potential buyer — that is looking into tax incentives, Pryor said — backs out, his company will clean up the glass and other damage inside. He had no timeline for this but said he expected a sale could be completed in two months.
“We have made every effort to ensure the property is secure by boarding up the building,” he said. “At this point we have no intent to raze the property. We will leave that up to the potential buyer of the property.”
His company also has obtained bids to repair potholes on its private roadway and is exploring erecting a fence all around the mall to keep trespassers out of it.
Eight residents spoke, asking that the mall be demolished as a danger to the community’s residents and a blight on its development.
Lauren Rowe, who had spoken at a prior council meeting on the topic, called the mall “a total embarrassment” and said if Century III Mall PA LLC and Moonbeam had properly maintained it, “we wouldn’t be at this point.”
The West Mifflin Area High School teacher also lamented the fact that one of the school’s students had been injured there, and David Marshall, who said he was a former school board president, said his 16-year-old son and his peers are well aware of how to get into the mall, posing more danger to them and first responders. Further, he said the closed mall is “destroying the reputation of this district.”
Howard Rowe reminded the crowd and officials that prior to the mall the site had been a slag dump that provided entertainment for him as a kid and others when it lit up the sky at night. More than 40 years later, he said, “you’re back to a dump.”