RiverWalk makes old new again
By Ron DaParma
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Having one of the nation’s leading advocacy groups for environmentally friendly “green building” as a new tenant means a lot to Mark Stephen Bibro.
He’s general manager of RiverWalk Corporate Centre, a massive, 102-year-old complex on Pittsburgh’s South Side — for years known as the Terminal Buildings.
The Green Building Alliance is scheduled to open its headquarters there at the end of this month, putting a deeper stamp on the transformation of the nearly 1-million-square-foot complex, once said to be the largest warehouse between New York and Chicago.
“People walk in — particularly those who have not been here for a long time — and expect to see an old warehouse, but when they open the door, their first comment generally is, ‘Wow,’ ” said Bibro.
Since he took over day-to-day management duties about seven years ago, the tenant roster has swelled from about 25 to more than 90, bringing occupancy to 75 percent.
That includes many non-warehouse-type tenants, such as the Green Building Alliance, which intends to make its offices a showcase for recycled materials and other sustainable products.
“It really has a lot of important features for us,” said Jeaneen A. Zappa, deputy director of the Alliance. “It’s a historic building and it allows us to show that green building can be done in an existing space and not just a new building, which is a common misconception.”
“We have high-tech, low-tech and no-tech,” said Bibro, whose late father was one of a group of tenants and friends of local businessman Dan Lackner that bought the complex in 1963. The building, designed by architect Charles Bickle, opened in 1906 as a state-of-the-art warehouse, modeled after the Cupples Station in St. Louis.
Although the Lackner family’s Paper Products Co., a distributor, is still the largest tenant, with 170,000 square feet, the complex is populated by a diverse mix of companies.
“We have 14 other nonprofits, four commercial printers, four architects, a sculptor and yoga and martial arts studios,” Bibro said.
In addition, there are companies such as high-tech artificial lung device manufacturer A-Lung Technologies Inc., and a group of other creative types such as Steelcoast, a creative agency that provides marketing and communications services to its clients.
“We wanted raw warehouse space, and this was exactly what we were looking for,” said Scott Bowlin, principal and creative designer for the firm, which has a staff of 11 in its 2,500-square-foot space.
“We wanted a distinctive look, and we were able to create that here,” he said of Steelcoast’s office, whose decorative touches include a nonworking gasoline pump and old-fashioned telephone booth.
“This is 1 million square feet, so you can have a sculptor on the same floor as A-Lung, and on the same floor with an architect,” said Bibro. “We also just brought in a paint studio. You can put those all in the same building, and they don’t contradict. They really complement one another.”
Efforts to transform the complex took two different tracks, according to Bibro.
First, a multimillion-dollar renovation upgraded mechanical systems and fire alarm equipment and addressed accessibility issues that weren’t dealt with 100 years ago, he said.
Next came an effort to change image.
“Our image used to be as a good location, but also a truck terminal, dirty, with storage and materials, and trucks going in and out all the time,” he said. “So even though the building was cleaned, and the windows were new, and we no longer had trailer trucks moving in and out, it took people actually coming here for events to say this place is great.”
One initiative that helped was to invite nonprofit groups to hold their monthly board meetings there, and that started the word spreading, he said.
Then, organizations such as the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America and the Visiting Nurses Foundation took advantage of Bibro’s offer for free use of a vacant 60,000-square-foot space on the top (sixth) floor to stage fundraising and other larger events.
That brought thousands of people into the building who had never seen it before, he said.
“SteelCoast is an example of a company that came to an event just because they wanted to support a charity, and they told me a few months later that their goal was to eventually move into our building,” Bibro said.
“Now the building hums 24/7 because all these young techies and other people here work that way,” he said. “You come here at 2 o’clock in the morning and there are always 10 companies working on a project or something like that.”
Ron DaParma can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7907