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Developer pitches plan to return Market Square to its roots as a marketplace

By Mark Belko,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Thursday, May 04, 2006

A local developer is reaching into Pittsburgh’s past as part of his bid to bolster the future of the Fifth and Forbes retail corridor Downtown.

In a meeting with Mayor Bob O’Connor yesterday, Ralph Falbo pitched the idea of returning Market Square to its roots as a marketplace as part of an elaborate plan to transform the downtrodden Fifth and Forbes corridor.

The “Market at Murphy’s,” an independent marketplace featuring “many of Pittsburgh’s finest purveyors of food,” would be one component of a broader plan that features construction of a 280-unit residential high-rise on the south side of Forbes Avenue, conversion of the upper floors of the G.C. Murphy’s store into 36 apartments and creation of a destination-type outlet for diamond wholesalers and retailers.

“We see a revitalized neighborhood in the city, young and energetic in character with careful consideration to the historic buildings in the area,” Mr. Falbo said in a statement after meeting with the mayor.

“The plan, in addition to vision and concept, is one of action — we need to draw the right uses and users into the area as quickly as possible to spark the greater revitalization of the area.”

The proposal uses nearly 20 city-owned buildings in the corridor, including Murphy’s and the old National Record Mart, one of the structures likely to be cleared to make way for the high-rise. The developer did not say whether he would seek exclusive rights to develop the parcels.

Mr. Falbo is one of at least three developers interested in the corridor. Two weeks ago, Millcraft Industries Inc. of Washington County presented a $217 million plan to revive the district. It also was heavy on the residential side, with 805 units proposed, plus 200,000 square feet of retail and 45,000 square feet of office space.

Washington, D.C.-based developer Madison Marquette has pitched a $50 million to $60 million plan to the city, featuring a mix of residential and retail on lower Fifth Avenue. It wanted to court trendy retailers like Crate & Barrel. However, Mr. O’Connor balked at the $24 million in proposed public subsidies involved. He said yesterday he’s waiting to see if Madison Marquette intends to make another bid for the work.

Like Mr. Falbo’s, the Millcraft and Madison Marquette plans use the Murphy’s building and other city Urban Redevelopment Authority parcels in the corridor as the building blocks for the development.

Mr. O’Connor said Mr. Falbo’s plan totaled about $90 million in all. He described it “very interesting” and said Mr. Falbo was not seeking public subsidies.

“There’s a lot of good points there,” he said.

Mr. Falbo, developer of the 151 First Side condominium tower under construction on Fort Pitt Boulevard, could not be reached for comment after the meeting.

The overall plan includes:

*The Market at Murphy’s, an independent marketplace operated by Mr. Falbo and his partners and featuring Pittsburgh’s “finest purveyors of food.” There was no additional detail. Mr. Falbo said in the release that he and his partners also envision bringing Strip District food merchants to the marketplace to operate kiosks. He said similar ventures have been successful in Seattle, Columbus, Ohio, and Portland, Ore.

The Market at Murphy’s is something of a throwback. Starting as early as 1815, Market Square featured a market house. For years, the massive Diamond Market, built in 1914, was a fixture in the square. It was demolished in 1961. Another venture, Market on the Square, a meat and food market attached to Murphy’s, closed in 1994.

*The Market House, a 36-unit apartment complex using the upper floors of the Murphy’s building. The development would feature balconies along Forbes Avenue, underground parking, and a central courtyard.

*Diamond Tower, a new 280-unit high-rise on Forbes Avenue. It would offer 200 rental units and 80 condos, along with first- and second-floor retail.

*Diamond Market, designed “to restore the grandeur of Pittsburgh’s Diamond District” by creating a destination spot for retailers and wholesalers to sell their gems.

If he gets the go-ahead from the mayor, Mr. Falbo said he could start construction of the market, apartment complex and high-rise by the end of the year. He is teaming with EQA Landmark Communities and architectural and engineering firm Burt Hill.

Mr. O’Connor said he will work with the URA and others in coming weeks to determine which of the proposals is “most doable.”

“You still have to look at the financial situation, who has the capability of delivering, and how soon,” he said.

He said he hopes to have a developer selected in two to three weeks. He added he also is open to giving each developer pieces of the corridor to work on rather than having one do the entire project.

(Mark Belko can be reached at or 412-263-1262. )

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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