For 3 years, Lord & Taylor sits vacant – Downtown’s former Mellon Bank building a tough sell
Monday, March 17, 2008
By Mark Belko,
The last time a customer stepped inside the Lord & Taylor building, Downtown, Luke Ravenstahl was serving his first year on City Council and a guy by the name of Roethlisberger was in his rookie season with the Steelers.
It’s been more than three years now since the J.J. Gumberg Co. purchased the former department store, which closed in November 2004 amid declining sales and shopper indifference.
Today, the elegant granite building, a National Historic Landmark and former Mellon Bank, stands as testament to ex-Mayor Tom Murphy’s failed strategy for revitalizing the central business district but little else.
As redevelopment activity buzzes a block away, the Lord & Taylor building sits empty in the heart of the Downtown retail corridor, its lights off and locked gates blocking the entrances.
It has been that way since Gumberg purchased the building in February 2005 for $2.5 million, a song compared with the $11.8 million the city sank into the deal that brought Lord & Taylor to Pittsburgh five years earlier.
Gumberg came in with hopes of landing another department store or general merchandise retailer or perhaps even multiple ones to fill the 150,000 square feet of space. There was talk of a Target discount store or even an upscale Nordstrom, which subsequently settled at Ross Park Mall.
None of it has happened. Three years later, Gumberg has yet to land a tenant.
On its Web site, Gumberg has been marketing the “Shoppes at Smithfield,” described as an “inviting, modern, three-tiered open retail environment,” one “designed with flexibility to accommodate today’s most desirable fashion retailers, lifestyle shops and fine dining.”
Fred Reitano, Gumberg executive vice president, said Shoppes at Smithfield was “just a name we were thinking of using … if we decided to use [the building] as a retail venue.”
Mr. Reitano would not disclose any of the prospective retailers or office users Gumberg has met with over the last couple of years but added that the company is willing to take its time in finding a tenant.
“We always felt the Lord & Taylor building … is really the best location within the Downtown central business district. I know we have been patient with our selection of tenancy to ensure that we bring the appropriate retail to Downtown. That’s what we’re looking to do,” he said.
Mr. Ravenstahl, now Pittsburgh’s mayor, said the inability to find a tenant for such a high-profile building has been frustrating.
“It is something right now when you look at it, you wish something was there and a good use was there. But I also believe [with] the momentum … happening in Pittsburgh that current vacancy will someday be an asset. I think it can potentially be a good opportunity for Downtown,” he said.
Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, said he is not surprised by what has transpired. Mr. Ziegler and other local preservationists loudly protested the renovations that turned the former bank’s majestic open interior, with its marble columns and floors, into a multilevel department store.
“We said it would be a tragedy when Murphy wanted to destroy that space. The building’s significance was not only its magnificent exterior but its magnificent and unique interior. I certainly think what happened to it was tragic. Since it so far hasn’t worked, that only compounds the situation,” he said.
While lower Fifth Avenue is humming with the redevelopment of another former department store, Lazarus-Macy’s, into shops, condominiums and offices, and the conversion of the old G.C. Murphy’s store into apartments, retail and fitness space, the Lord & Taylor building has resisted reuse.
Local real estate brokers say the building poses unique challenges for Gumberg in marketing it for retail or office use.
Chief among them is that it is ill-suited for merchandising. The high windows worked well for a bank, but aren’t desirable for retail. Few of the windows are at street level and those that are are narrow rectangles, not exactly effective for store displays.
“One of the things that retailers look for is people seeing the merchandise. The building provides certain challenges to that,” said Mike Edwards, president and chief executive officer of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. “When you walk by, you don’t say, ‘Oh, that’s a retail building.’ ”
Even Stanley Gumberg, the company’s chairman, conceded the structure posed a challenge when he discussed the purchase in a 2004 interview.
“I’ll bet you couldn’t find another building with this configuration if you stood on your head,” he said at the time.
And while the structure may fit a single user, it is far less effective for multiple tenants, particularly given the limitations on altering its exterior because of its status as a city historic structure, brokers said.
“It worked well as a single-use department store. Its accessibility from the street for multi-tenant purposes is challenged as well as the ability to enhance the storefront presence because it’s a historic building,” said Kevin Langholz, principal of Langholz-Wilson Ellis Inc., a real estate company.
Some said another factor may be the woebegone state of parts of the Fifth and Forbes retail corridor. While lower Fifth Avenue will be home to the new Three PNC Plaza and the Lazarus and Murphy’s redevelopments, other areas are in need of an overhaul. That could affect the ability to market the Lord & Taylor property, brokers said.
“If anything gives Downtown a black eye, frankly, it’s a lot of our rundown areas or stuff that is just behind the times. You walk down Fifth and Forbes, they’re not attractive. They’re not pleasant places to shop,” said David Glickman, vice president of the Retail Group for Grubb & Ellis Co.
Mr. Ravenstahl believes that once the PNC, Lazarus and Murphy’s projects are finished, they will be “part of what we need to change the energy down there.”
“I won’t deny the fact that there are challenges along that corridor and that’s a significant piece of the puzzle when people come in and take a look at redeveloping a particular parcel,” he said.
He remains optimistic that a tenant will be found for the Lord & Taylor building.
“I think it will happen. It’s just a matter of being patient and taking things one step at a time,” he said.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Mar. 20, 2008) The Lord & Taylor building, Downtown, is a city historic structure, not a National Historic Landmark, as this story incorrectly stated when originally published on Mar. 17, 2008. To change the building’s exterior, the owner must get approval from the city Historic Review Commission.
Mark Belko can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1262.
First published on March 17, 2008 at 12:00 am