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Downtown switching from business to residential

By Tony LaRussa
Sunday, February 27, 2005

Pittsburgh’s business leaders think they finally have hit on a way to revitalize Downtown: Rather than focusing solely on making it the place to work and shop, position it as a place to live.
“The era of having totally commercial districts is over in Pittsburgh and other cities,” said Herb Burger, who helped launch the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership more than a decade ago and is among those spearheading the latest effort to revitalize the Fifth and Forbes corridor.

“All indications point to the need to have residential development Downtown to stabilize the area and create a community of people who not only work there, but live and shop there as well,” Burger said.

Patty Burk, program director of Pittsburgh’s Downtown Living Initiative, believes efforts to increase the amount of residential development Downtown are part of a national trend.

“We’re seeing a growing number of people in Pittsburgh who view urban living as something cool, something they want to be part of,” Burk said.

“I think it’s a combination of people growing bored with the suburbs — whether it’s spending an hour or more a day commuting or something else — and realizing the city offers some great buildings within walking distance of their jobs as well as lots of cultural activities.”

Business leaders believe increasing the size of Downtown’s population will lay the groundwork for improving the retail climate.

“More people living Downtown adds vibrancy to the city, which should lead to a healthier retail environment,” said Nancy Hart, interim executive director of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. She said a goal of doubling the Downtown population — currently fewer than 4,000 people — is a realistic one.

Developer Ralph Falbo, who has teamed with the Zambrano Corp. and Equa Landmark Communities on a proposed 84-unit luxury condominium complex on Fort Pitt Boulevard near Stanwix Street called First Side, is banking on greater interest in Downtown living.

“I walked past that site all my life and noticed the beautiful view of the river,” Falbo said. “And I’ve long felt that the lack of upscale condos available for people who want to live Downtown really was a missing link in the fabric of the city.”

Falbo, who is hoping to break ground on the 18-story building in the spring, estimates the project will cost about $28 million. Work is expected to take about 18 months.

Downtown residential projects that are under construction or being planned include:

An 18-story, 151-unit luxury apartment building at Seventh Street and Fort Duquesne Boulevard in the Cultural District. The project is being done by Lincoln Property Co.

Conversion of the upper six floors of the Fidelity Building on Fourth Avenue into 24 apartments by developer Dean McHolme, who also has plans to convert a seven-story office building at 111 Wood St. into apartments.

Conversion of the Union National Bank Building at Fourth and Wood streets into 60 condominiums.

Construction of 20 luxury apartment units at 930 Penn Ave., near the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
While developers are optimistic about the future of residential development Downtown, those who jumped in early have had their difficulties.

“I certainly believe the city is ripe for the national trend of people looking for a different lifestyle, a more urban experience, than was sought 20 or 30 years ago,” said Eve Picker of No Wall Productions, one of the city’s “loft living” pioneers. “But Pittsburgh tends to lag behind the rest of the country a bit, so Downtown has been a bit of a tough sell.”

Over the past several years, Picker has developed 21 upscale residential properties on First Avenue and along Penn Avenue, Downtown. However, a downturn in the city’s real estate market has meant several units remain vacant.

Burger said his group is concentrating on developing the lower portion of Fifth Avenue, from the closed Lazarus department store building down to Liberty Avenue.

While he cautions that plans for the Fifth and Forbes corridor are in the very early stages of development, the initial vision is to preserve the best of the older buildings and add a number of new structures.

Previous Fifth and Forbes plans promoted by Mayor Tom Murphy were sharply criticized by officials of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation because they included demolition of many older structures.

Burger said his group is working with Philadelphia residential developer Carl Dranoff on the latest Fifth and Forbes plan, which initially calls for between 600 and 800 residential units on the second and third floors of various buildings, and retail space at ground level.

Another change that will likely occur is a shift in who is spearheading the development effort, Burger said.

While the city will certainly be a major player in any effort to develop Downtown — the Urban Redevelopment Authority owns a significant number of buildings in the Fifth and Forbes corridor — success ultimately will have to rely on private initiatives.

“I think there is a greater sense that the political atmosphere is not the place to get things done,” Burger said. “It’s going to take people in the private sector saying we have to do something Downtown. Of course, the developers will be looking to the city to assist them.”

Tony LaRussa can be reached at or (412) 320-7987.

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