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PNC is anxious for progress in Fifth-Forbes revival

By Stephanie Franken
Wednesday, November 13, 2002

PNC Financial Services Group is anxious for progress in the city’s efforts to redevelop the Fifth and Forbes corridor.
“We’d like to see a new Fifth Avenue,” said Gary Saulson, director of corporate real estate for PNC’s Realty Services Division. “From that standpoint, we might be a little disappointed.”

PNC has a large stake in Downtown, with about 7,000 employees and 2.5 million square feet of office space.

The company has 12 properties between Market and Wood streets on Fifth Avenue, making it one of the biggest players in the redevelopment of the corridor.

Saulson said he doesn’t blame the city for the delay, and he appreciates that the city is making an effort to redevelop the area in a manner that is more sensitive to existing businesses.

Saulson was a member of Mayor Tom Murphy’s so-called Plan C task force that crafted the latest redevelopment plan in March, after previous, more elaborate Murphy plans collapsed. Plan C, unlike earlier plans, calls for preserving and renovating some buildings, rather than clearing the corridor for redevelopment.

Saulson remains optimistic that the area near PNC’s headquarters buildings on Fifth and Liberty avenues can be much more than it is today.

“Fifth and Forbes is never going to be Michigan Avenue,” Saulson said, referring to Chicago’s vibrant downtown office, retail and residential corridor. “But there’s no reason it can’t be a smaller version.”

Craig Kwiecinksi, spokesman for Mayor Murphy, said the redevelopment project “is a very important but difficult transaction. We are working to identify a private development partner for the revitalization of the corridor. While we are committed to the project, we cannot move forward until we have identified a private development partner.”

Don Hunter, the consultant who led the Plan C task force, said large property owners such as PNC or Saks Fifth Avenue are understandably reluctant to redevelop their own properties when a larger plan for the area is looming.

“Not much has really happened that’s visible in the past year, which is frustrating,” Hunter said. “We had some momentum as of this time last year through January. I’m not sure what the problem is.”

Hunter has said he would like to take a leadership role in the redevelopment project, but has not heard whether he’ll be selected.

PNC’s Saulson said numerous factors have led to the slowdown: an “underwhelming response” from developers, a weak economy, and a lack of public and private money.

Moreover, other developments — The Waterfront in Homestead, Station Square, the SouthSide Works and even the plans for the North Shore — are drawing attention away from Downtown, Saulson said.

Mulugetta Birru, executive director of the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, has said that Plan C could take more time than many had expected. The city URA, also a major property owner in the Fifth-Forbes corridor, cannot afford to do more than buy a few buildings at a time until it amasses enough property to turn over to a developer. Most recently, the city bought the G.C. Murphy buildings near Market Square, which are across the street from PNC’s properties.

PNC does not plan to take on the role of a redeveloper, Saulson said. “We’re not interested in building speculative space, whether it’s office space or retail space or whatever,” he said.

Saulson said PNC hasn’t ruled out selling its properties to a developer.

Some of PNC’s buildings on Fifth Avenue near its headquarters, are occupied. Among the tenants are a General Nutrition Center, Bradley’s Book Center, Mo-Gear, and Penn Wigs & Fashions. But several are vacant, including the storefronts formerly occupied by Kidsburgh, Cyrus Beauty Supplies, and Fifth and Wood Men’s Shop

Downtown has assets to build on, Saulson said, including large numbers of offices and Downtown workers, a vibrant cultural district, and a good transit system.

“I’m fairly optimistic that Downtown will be developed,” he said. “The question remains as to the time frame.”

Like PNC, Saks Fifth Avenue is bullish on Pittsburgh, but wants to be part of a larger effort before it starts an expansion project Downtown, said Alison Strieder Mayher, vice president and general manager for the Pittsburgh Saks at Fifth Avenue and Smithfield Street.

“I think you could say that we are excited and optimistic about the city,” Mayher said. “We certainly are planning, down the road, to do a renovation — and the outcome of the Fifth and Forbes corridor depends upon all of us together just putting our heads together and doing it.

“That will be a few years down the line, I’m sure. But Saks is actively working on it.”

Stephanie Franken can be reached at

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633