Friday, June 09, 2006

A Model Of Progress?

Imagine, if you will, waking up one morning and looking out the bedroom window to discover that your neighbors' homes had been abandoned overnight, their fates unknown or undecided, and no apparent explanation for their sudden disappearance. Such was the feeling I had when I drove down West Liberty Avenue in Dormont a few days ago. A longtime cornerstone of the borough's business district, A. B. Charles Hobby Shop, had closed down and was (judging by a quick glance through the shop windows) in the process of being relieved of its fixtures. The merchandise was already gone.

Right away, I began feeling a little guilty for not patronizing the shop more often. But model railroading is an expensive hobby, and I have neither the time nor the money to indulge in a big layout, so the few N-scale pieces that I had remain safely stored in boxes.

As it turns out, I need not have worried that A. B. Charles was going under because of lack of patronage. The business may not be open, but neither is it completely gone. It is in limbo. As an article in yesterday's P-G explains:

Number One Cochran Pontiac bought the Hobby Shop property at 3213 West Liberty Ave. and plans to display Nissan vehicles in a lot there and to provide additional customer parking.
Another familiar site on West Liberty Avenue for many years was the Hobby Shop's neighbor, McMinn Oldsmobile. McMinn switched to Toyotas a few years ago, and two years ago sold out to #1 Cochran, which owns two other dealerships in suburban Allegheny County. A few locals were traumatized by the loss of a well-known name, but times do change. One thing that is constant is the growth and expansion of the automotive selling trade all along the Avenue. West Liberty runs through Dormont from the Mount Lebanon border all the way into the city of Pittsburgh up to the Liberty Tunnels (a.k.a. the "Tubes"). This has been my daily commute for the last five years. You can not drive more than four blocks along West Liberty Avenue without passing a car dealer. And in my five years, new dealerships have opened while existing dealerships have expanded and/or changed hands. That does not even include the several small independent used car lots sandwiched between the big guys. It's suburban used car salesman sprawl. At the present rate, by the time I retire, the entire length of West Liberty will be end-to-end car dealerships. Perhaps even one owner to rule them all.

For now, however, one dealer at the southern end of the Avenue is taking over the property upon which sits a popular independently-owned local business and replacing it with a parking lot. And as unhappy as Dormonters may be about it, the fact remains that the future car lot is the property of #1 Cochran, and the borough has given both the sale and the demolition/paving project its sanction:

But it looks like a done deal. Council, the planning board and the zoning hearing board have given their blessings. Solicitor Thomas H. Ayoob III said the company complied with the requirements of the application process. "They satisfied all the requirements up to date."
One Dormont resident is quoted in the article as saying that this " will change the character of the borough" (quite correct) and that it will be "just another ugly car lot" (probably true, unless #1 Cochran also uses the lot for a bikini car wash). However, the main concern of the borough, indeed of any municipality, is revenue rather than aesthetics. What affects the value of the land for tax purposes? The building, the ground on which it sits, or the owner thereof?
Mayor Thomas Lloyd acknowledged later that the only millage on that property comes from the value of the land, although the new owner said he doesn't know what the millage impact is.
So -- will changes made by the new owner increase the value, keep it the same, or lower it? The borough seems to be satisfied with #1 Cochran's plans. As the owner, the dealership can do what they want with the property as long as they comply with local zoning laws. Like it or not, A.B. Charles is gone from the old location. Their new brick-and-mortar location is supposed to open in a few weeks. At present the only location is at the shop's web site. I look forward to visiting the new location after it opens...wherever it will be. And I might even be motivated enough to work on that model railroad that I have been wanting to create since I was ten years old.

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