Station Square at 25 – Competition pushes old rail complex to focus on entertainment
By Mark Belko,
Sunday, December 05, 2004
These days, Station Square likes to bill itself as “Pittsburgh’s place to play.” Al Ratner won’t settle for anything less. The old railroad complex has long been a popular tourist destination. Now, Ratner, the board co-chairman of Forest City Enterprises, the Cleveland developer that owns the property, wants to make it Pittsburgh’s premier entertainment spot as well.
That’s a measure of just how far it’s come in the 25 years since civic, business and political leaders sipped drinks and strolled the red brick floors at the opening of the Freight House Shops in 1979.
What once was a quirky mix of local shops, retailers and restaurants, including the just-closed nuisance nightclub, Chauncy’s, has become a land of dancing fountains, a tented amphitheater and a host of dining and entertainment venues as the complex tries to stay fresh against competition on the South Side and trendy developments such as the Waterfront.
The stately Grand Concourse restaurant, a converted train station, is still there, as is the Gateway Clipper, the riverboat fleet that remains a favorite for families, senior citizens and school outings. Some of the original shops, such as St. Brendan’s Crossing and Morini, still occupy space in the Freight House. Houlihan’s restaurant, another original, also remains.
But more and more, with an eye seemingly aimed toward casino gambling, Forest City is moving Station Square away from its retail roots with restaurants anchoring the ends to a full-fledged entertainment and dining complex, unnerving some longtime retailers struggling to keep their businesses afloat.
The transition is evident in brochures: Station Square currently is home to roughly 27 restaurants or entertainment spots and 22 shops or services, compared with 18 eateries or nightclubs and 48 shops or services in the first years after the complex opened.
Old mainstays such as The Limited, Limited Express, Laura Ashley and Casual Corner are gone. Nearly a third of the retail space in the Freight House was taken over by the Bradford School, a two-year career institution which opens next month and which will bring a younger crowd to Station Square,
“You look at places like Hard Rock Cafe, the Funny Bone, Crawford Grill with live entertainment, yeah, it’s definitely taking a different path,” said city Councilman Alan Hertzberg, whose district includes Station Square. “Even the fountain show that was built there is entertainment right now. It’s definitely taking on a new theme, one I think is being very well-received.”
Not by all. Some fear that Freight House retail may end up going the way of the old rail service that once ran through the complex.
“I see the eventual end of retail here in the next five years,” said Ron Collins, manager of Bradley’s Books, who estimates the store’s business is down 20 percent this year, mainly because of the shifting priorities. “Station Square has really changed the focus around here.”
More expansion to come
The emphasis on entertainment has brought some problems, the most visible of which was this week’s court-ordered permanent closing of Chauncy’s after being termed a nuisance bar. The district attorney’s office cited 80 incidents at the club since July 2003, including fights, drug dealing, assaults and a November 2003 homicide in a parking garage that police said stemmed from a dispute in Chauncy’s. Two club officers also have been accused of dealing drugs from the club.
Chauncy’s was in the Commerce Court section of Station Square not controlled by Forest City, although it expects to have at least some say in what goes into the vacant space. While the club could pack in the crowds, no one seemed to mourn its demise.
“I believe it will be a positive for Station Square,” said Gary Marasco, general manager of the complex’s Hard Rock Cafe.
“At the time the violence started, it did have a significant effect. The media attention raised a lot of eyebrows with our clientele. Families want a safe place to go out and dine. We definitely saw a drop-off in business. I think it hurt the name of Station Square as a place to go.”
You wouldn’t know it by the weekend crowds that pour into the complex, whether for concerts, pre- or post-Steelers game revelry, Light Up Night, or an evening of eating and drinking.
Much of their business is focused on the fruits of a $71 million building campaign Forest City embarked on in 2000, altering not only the face but the sashay of the historic 52-acre riverside complex.
The first phase involved construction of a $25 million, nine-story wing to the existing Sheraton Hotel, adding 104 rooms. Then came the $25 million Bessemer Court project, the centerpiece of the developer’s expansion so far.
It brought the Hard Rock Cafe, Bar Louie, the Red Star Tavern, an expanded Funny Bone comedy club, Joe’s Crab Shack and several other restaurants to the centrally located court, named after an old Bessemer converter that had been taken from a Pittsburgh-area steel mill.
The piece de resistance was construction of a 100-foot-wide fountain that shoots jets of water up to 60 feet and is synchronized to play off colored lights and music, a Vegas-style attraction far removed from the old rail yards.
This spring, Forest City plans to build a public marina on the banks of the Monongahela River that will allow boaters to dock and partake in Station Square offerings. An elevator and 140-foot pedestrian walkway, both of which have been built, will transport boaters from the marina to Bessemer Court.
Ratner envisions water taxis zipping along the rivers, taking visitors from Station Square to the North Shore, South Side and other destinations and back.
With the help of a $5 million state grant, the developer will erect a pedestrian walkway over Carson Street to link the complex with the Port Authority light rail stop and the Monongahela Incline, tying Station Square to another popular tourist spot, Mount Washington.
“We think connecting Station Square to Mount Washington is extremely important,” Ratner said. “It’s wonderful to park at Station Square and take the incline and have dinner. We don’t have another place in the state that has that opportunity.”
Growing competition is driving the improvements.
Just down Carson Street is the South Side, still a very popular nightspot, and the emerging South Side Works complex, with the Cheesecake Factory, a new movie house and other options. There’s also competition from the Waterfront in Homestead and the Strip, with its nightclubs, bars and restaurants.
“I guess I would tend to think that the local or regional flavor has shifted to the South Side,” said commercial real estate broker Kevin Langholz, of the Downtown firm Langholz-Wilson & Associates. “The culinary experience there is a little more intimate, kind of now, if you will. It will change even more with the South Side Works.”
Beth Edwards, Station Square manager, said the emphasis on entertainment also was an answer to suburban malls.
“I think there’s a lot of retail out in the suburbs. We’ve been very successful in attracting national and international restaurants. We have tourist destinations with the Gateway Clipper, the amphitheater and the Just Ducky tours,” she said.
Whatever the competition, Forest City could end up trumping it all if it wins the state license for a stand-alone slots casino in Pittsburgh.
Forest City has made no secret about wanting to add gambling to the mix. In buying Station Square from the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation for $25.5 million in 1994, it did so with an eye toward docking a riverboat casino on the banks of the Mon.
Riverboat gambling never became law in Pennsylvania, but slots gambling did, in a vote by the state Legislature last summer, and Station Square is considered a prime site for the casino, in competition with the Penguins, who want to build one near Mellon Arena, and parking czar Merrill Stabile, who wants to put one on the North Shore.
Forest City has been discussing a possible partnership with Harrah’s Entertainment Inc., the Las Vegas casino operator. Harrah’s sold its interest in Station Square to Forest City in 1998, but retained its option to build a casino there through 2007. The state expects to award the Pittsburgh casino license in 2006.
Ratner has been reluctant to comment on the casino issue, noting that the state hasn’t set up the application process.
But Langholz, who believes Station Square can continue to succeed without gambling, has no doubt that the impact would be great.
“Gambling would serve as a tremendous anchor, much as a department store does to a regional mall. It would further the life cycle and enhance the amenities at Station Square,” he said.
City Council President Gene Ricciardi has expressed concerns about gambling at Station Square, fearing it could jam traffic and take patrons from the South Side, his district.
Some Station Square retailers also are wary of gambling, while others are ready to embrace it.
“I’m not thinking that’s really going to help us,” said Carol Wilson, owner of Accentricity, a Freight House jewelry store. “When you look at the Boardwalk [in Atlantic City] a lot of those shops are gone. I’m not sure it’s going to be a big thing for me. I’m hoping I’m wrong.”
“I don’t think it would help this establishment. The money won’t go back into development,” said Collins, of Bradley Books. “I’m rooting for Mario [Lemieux, Penguins owner], because people will benefit from it.”
Marasco sees it as a plus for the Hard Rock.
“Obviously, from a foot traffic standpoint, it’s great for Station Square. We’re very much in favor of having gambling at Station Square,” he said. “I think it would make Station Square the crown jewel of development in Pittsburgh.”
Eileen Manning, of St. Brendan’s Crossing, one of the original Freight House shops, also is supportive. “It can only be helpful to encourage more people to visit here,” she said.
Should Station Square lose out on the casino license, Forest City would consider doing office or residential development on the property, Ratner said.
Lots of businesses and restaurants have come and gone in the 25 years Station Square has existed. The Cheese Cellar, another original, recently closed. Tequila Junction is gone. So is Bobby Rubino’s. Bolan’s Candies shut down, as did B. Dalton Booksellers. The Pittsburgh Sports Garden gave way to Rod Woodson’s All-Star Grille, and then to Philthy McNasty’s. Now a new restaurant, Margarita Mamas, occupies the space next to Hooter’s restaurant.
But while Downtown retail has faltered and many businesses have gone under, Station Square has managed to adapt.
“I think Station Square is still an attractive tourist spot, given the amenities of the river’s edge and with the Liberty Belle and the boats. It’s still a major attraction for people coming into Pittsburgh for the first or second time,” Langholz said.
(Mark Belko can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1262.)