January 05, 2006

Does This Bode Poorly For People's Building?

There was an upbeat story in The Daily News on Saturday about changes coming to Fifth Avenue in Our Fair City. According to the piece, by Pat Cloonan, Mayor James Brewster and City Adminstrator Dennis Pittman continue waging a relentless war of common sense in the city.

Among other things expected to transpire:

It looks like the vacant Penn-McKee Hotel could get a new lease on life after all. The registered owner, See Bee Inc. (as Tube City Almanac has reported, the tax bills go to E.L. Kemp), is near a sale or lease agreement with someone else. No word on what the building would be used for, but it seems ideal for senior-citizen housing, with possibly some light retail on the first floor. I would think its proximity to the McKees Point Marina and the Palisades would bode well.


Fifth Avenue is finally, finally being converted back to two-way traffic, pending conversion of traffic lights and approval from PennDOT. The city went through a mania in the '60s of converting streets to one-way in hopes of easing congestion in the business district. (Personally, at this point, I'd like to see a little congestion in the business district; to paraphrase the words of Yogi Berra, Downtown has apparently gotten so crowded that nobody goes there any more.)


Developer Barry Stein, who bought the Midtown Plaza Mall a few years ago and finally let sunshine beam down on Fifth Avenue again after decades of darkness, says two more stores are going to open along Lysle Boulevard. And he's purchasing the building that houses Thee Record Warehouse. The venerable record store is regrettably going out of business several years after the death of its co-founder, Dave Raymer. Stein tells Cloonan that he has plans for the building, which once housed The Canopy, but he's not going to discuss them yet.


And then there's The People's Building, formerly the People's Union Bank Building. The city treasurer's office has recently moved out of the first floor and back into the Municipal Building at Lysle and Market. All city offices are slated to move down to the former McKeesport National Bank Building once Sky Bank completes construction of its new office near McKeesport Hospital. It's nice to see that the old National Bank building (a registered historic landmark) will get a new tenant.

So where does that leave the People's Building, a venerable landmark in its own right, now a century old? (The late Mayor Joe Bendel once told me that "every Navy needs a battleship, and the People's Building is McKeesport's battleship.") According to the News, the new owner is being identified as "California-based Regis Possino." Possino is proposing that the upper floors be converted into housing, while the lower floors remain office and retail space.


Now, as I turned this around and around in my head, it just didn't seem right. I bow to no one in my affection for the city, and I feel Downtown is perfectly safe. But the perception among former McKeesporters is that Downtown is dangerous. I think that's baloney, but that's how it is.

So I question turning the People's Building into housing. It's perfectly suited for back office space for a growing company, or as a small business incubator (like the old Montgomery Ward building on Fifth Avenue near Huey Street), but I strongly doubt you'd get anyone to buy a condo or rent an apartment there. At least for a few years, until you were able to get Fifth Avenue scrubbed up and occupied by some businesses.

Anyway, I decided to see what other real estate projects Mr. Possino has been involved in. Maybe, I thought, he has a history of redeveloping old downtown properties.

Well, not exactly, though I did find a number of newspaper articles about him. If they're accurate, they don't paint a flattering picture.


The St. Louis Post-Dispatch calls Mr. Possino "a disbarred lawyer with separate convictions for drug dealing and fraud" ("Firm's operations could trouble voters," Aug. 13, 2005).

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Possino sold 350 pounds of marijuana to undercover police officers in 1978; he lost his license to practice in 1984, and has admitted that his ineffective defense of a woman accused of murder led to her conviction ("Fighting back for her life," June 9, 2002).

The Wall Street Journal reported in 2000 that Possino was involved in what the newspaper called "fluctations" of the stock of a number of Internet companies, but it stopped short of accusing him of any wrongdoing ("Heard on the street," May 26, 2000, no public link available).

A Canadian trade publication, Stockwatch Canada, calls Possino "one of those colourful characters who suffer misfortune after misfortune, but keep bouncing back in big-league cases" and a "major behind-the-scenes player" in the General Commerce Bank of Austria ("SEC target Switzer rolls L-Air down the runway," Feb. 19, 2003).

According to the Sunday Mail of London, General Commerce Bank was implicated in 2001 "in an international fraud to ramp the prices of low-value stocks. Broking firms in Bangkok were raided and 81 people were arrested. Days later, General Commerce Bank collapsed into insolvency" ("The long trail of deceit," Jan. 27, 2002).


Now --- in all due fairness to Mr. Possino, this is a lot of "guilt by association." He hasn't been arrested. Corporations in which he's been involved have been in trouble, but as far as I can tell, he has not been charged, sued or indicted. And a marijuana-peddling conviction 27 years ago does not mean that he hasn't gone straight since then. (His willingness to speak out on behalf of the California convict speaks in his favor, I'd say.)

Also, Pittman is quoted in the News as saying Possino is "very upbeat" about the People's Building, and that he wants "to be a part of the community."

I'm willing to take Possino at his word (provided he backs his words up with activity, of course).

Still, I think city officials have plenty of reasons to be cautious. Recall that the city Redevelopment Authority sold the People's Building in 2002 to a Nevada company called Strong Partners Inc. That company then immediately re-sold the building to Geneva Equities of Santa Monica, Calif., for $2 million.

Strong, as it turned out, was a subsidiary of Geneva Equities, the president of which --- until recently --- was Possino, according to Stockwatch. In 2004, Geneva defaulted on the loan it used to buy the building. At one point, according to the same Post-Gazette story by Jonathan Barnes, Geneva wanted to donate the People's Building to "an Indian tribe to start a casino."

(Geneva is still getting the tax bills, according to the Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds, so they are apparently still the legal owner.)

I wish Possino and his partners all the best in the world. I certainly hope they succeed either in redeveloping the People's Building, or selling it soon to someone who will.

But I suggest the city watch this situation very closely, and if public money is pledged to redevelop the building, I certainly hope they scrutinize any financial arrangements carefully. The picture of Possino's past activities painted by the media reports, if accurate, is not encouraging, and extreme caution and diligence are warranted.

There's plenty at stake --- including the ownership and future of one of the city's most recognizable landmarks. I spoke out, loudly, when Integra Bank threatened to tear the People's Building down. I want it to be put to a good, revenue-generating use.

I'm hopeful but extremely wary about Possino's involvement. I trust city officials are wary as well.

Posted by jt3y at January 5, 2006 06:06 PM

It's hard to imagine the People's Bank building becoming a place to live. It's been offices for 100+ years now. I would love to see the downtown district bustling with people the way my grandfather said it used to be. But times are changing and we wouldn't want to see that building demolished. Creative new uses for it may me the key to downtown's revitalization. If the People's Building, the Murphy's headquarters complex, and the old Pen McKee hotel were to convert to residential, maybe it would create a demand for other downtown businesses like convenience retail and services. And, I'm not sure the perception of crime really matters. Developers in Los Angeles are rehabbing old office buildings in the middle of skid row.

Posted by: John at January 6, 2006 03:36 PM

Possino has been behind the scenes at many convoluted penny stock scams. Most likely he's using the Bank Building to ramp up some worthless property into an accounting "asset" to go into one of his shell corps. Eventually there will probably be a default.

Possino's name appears in SEC filings for The Hartcourt Companies around '97. HRCT rose to $20 per share and is now quoted on the OTC Bulletin Board at 6 cents.

Hartcourt was sued by the SEC and lost a $1.2 settlement last year.

His investments usually have a strong overseas connection. He's smart, experienced and very well connected. It's unlikely that your city lawyers are a match for him. Make sure the city knows the score.

Good Luck

By the way, nice job covering the story.

Posted by: Ron G at March 13, 2006 09:38 AM

Peoples Bulding Woes, Regis Possino

I do believe, it is noteworthy to look at the past of Regis Possino.

- 1978 imprisoned for one year for selling marijuana worth 38.500 US Dollars to undercover Los Angeles cops. Trying to place a monthly order for $ 680.000 worth of cocaine.
- Attempting to sell $ 5 million of stolen treasury bills or bearer bonds to undercover agents.

- Undergoing a $12 million personal bankruptcy.

- Interfering with a witness in his trial on the marijuana offence leading to her dismissal from the jury and Possino's imprisonment for the rest of the trial.

- Disbarred as attorney in 1984.

- In 2000 involved with alleged crooks Adnan Khashoggi, Rakesh Saxena, and the convicted criminals Raoul Berthamieu and Sherman Mazur in the acquisition of the General Commerce bank in Vienna/Austria, turning it into a boiler room, a centre of international stock fraud. The damage, according to press reports, 1 billion US Dollars.
The bank was forcibly closed in 2001.

Good luck in negotiating with this convicted criminal.

Dr. Alexander von Paleske
Head, Department of Oncology
Princess Marina Hospital
Ex-Barrister-at-Law, High Court Frankfurt (M)/Germany

Posted by: Dr. Alexander von Paleske at May 19, 2006 05:28 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

IMPORTANT: Comments posted at the Tube City Almanac become property of the Almanac, and may be edited for content or deleted if found to be libelous. The Almanac conforms to the standards for accuracy and fairness proscribed in the Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. Opinions expressed by commenters are not necessarily those of Jason Togyer, and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Pittsburgh, Dementia Unlimited, or any other organization. Except where noted, all contents are Copyright © 2004-2007 Jason Togyer, all rights reserved, and may not be reproduced in whole or part without express permission. Further information available at our disclaimers page.