Terminal Building Faces Crossroads

By Wes Crosby

A person walking the length of the Produce Terminal Building on Smallman Street in 1955 would pass 71 retail produce distributors. Walk it today and you’ll find one, Superior Produce.

The quaint, open-air shop stands at the terminal building’s east end past numerous locked bays. Looking at the abandoned shops feels like observing the Titanic at the bottom of the ocean. Premier Produce, a wholesale produce company, and a flower shop are Superior Produce’s only neighbors past the Pittsburgh Public Market in the five-block long building.

The trucks still come in throughout the day, bringing fruits and vegetables from Guatemala, Hawaii, China and Ecuador but the industry pales in comparison to what it once was.

Cindy Kokowski, who has owned Superior Produce since her husband, Brad, opened it in 1996, says she enjoys her work as she and her son’s friend, 28-year-old, Tim Farrell pick through bright-red tomatoes for a gentleman who wants to purchase some with lower grade – meaning they are not as firm and are therefore cheaper.

“I love working here. I’ve been doing it for a while,” Cindy says as she runs back-and-forth from her small office off to the side to the pile of tomato boxes. “This is what the Strip has been forever. Of course that’s going to change and we know that none of us who are left in the building will be able to stay.”

With the Buncher Company’s proposal to tear down about 528 feet of the 1,478-foot-long building to make room for its planned Riverfront Landing, it is only a matter of time until the three shops past the Public Market are forced to move. Cindy is unsure of where Superior Produce’s future lies.

“I wish I knew where we are going to be a year from now, but I can’t really say. Of course it’s scary, but we know it’s inevitable.”

-Cindy Kokowski

The Produce Terminal has been owned by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) since Conrail sold the building in 1981. The URA recently granted Buncher $50 million in tax increment financing, a public financing method used for subsidizing redevelopment, in order to move Buncher’s Riverfront Landing plan forward.

“I wish I knew where we are going to be a year from now, but I can’t really say,” Cindy says. “Of course it’s scary, but we know it’s inevitable.” Buncher did not reply to numerous requests for interviews.

Councilman Patrick Dowd and Neighbors in the Strip Executive Director Becky Rodgers said that because Superior Produce is a tenant of the URA, it will need to relocate if the URA does not extend its lease.

“The produce is an important part of the Strip’s identity,” Rodgers said. “The produce business took a blow when J.E. Corcoran moved and if they [Superior Produce] need to move, I hope they can relocate within the Strip District.”

After almost 100 years in the Strip District, the J.E. Corcoran Co. announced in March 2011 that it intended to move to the Crafton area, leaving the terminal building missing one of its mainstay produce sellers.

In its proposal application to the state, the URA described the building as a “Pittsburgh icon,” but said that its “broken nature” threatens development along the river.

“Removing a block of the produce terminal allows the riverfront connection, and allows the new development of the riverfront parcel the visual and physical connection to the rest of the city that will allow the new development the greatest chance of success,” the URA wrote in its application.

While its time in the building is ticking away, Superior Produce is still flooded with customers every Saturday. Many are astonished by the quality of the produce compared to what is offered at chain supermarkets.

For example, banana peppers the size of a child’s forearm and bunches of a dozen bananas stand out in the display in the middle of the shop.

“We get stuff in every day,” Cindy says. “All of this is fresher than anything you’ll find in a supermarket.”

Superior Produce also maintains a wholesale component as it sells products to local restaurants. This portion of its business was also adversely affected recently due to the 2012 NHL Lockout.

Tim, who is draped in a Penguins hoodie, hat and tassel cap, says the lockout caused him to “go crazy.”

“I love the sport and it’s pretty noticeable that we don’t get as many orders when there isn’t anything going on as far as the Penguins go,” Tim says.

Cindy explains how local sports teams contribute to the success or struggle of her business.

“When the Pirates were really going for it this year, it was the best … the best. Sports runs everything in this town.”

Still, Superior Produce has its regular customers. A large group of people arrive at about 11 a.m. on Saturday. A small child goes over to the peppers and looks up at Tim with wide eyes.

“Everything looks good doesn’t it?” Tim says as he turns around and grabs something off of a high wooden table. “I’ve got something for you.”

Tim hands the little boy a “Super” sticker and the kid smiles and runs back to his mother.

“This is more like it,” Cindy remarks and runs over to the register to check out a few customers.

About 15 minutes pass and the shop empties once again. The space is quiet and Cindy discusses the building’s history.

“This all used to be one, long opened-up space,” she says. “You could walk from one end to the other and it was busy and vibrant. It’s nothing like it used to be and once the plan goes through, that’ll really be it.”