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Study: Move Point Park U. playhouse Downtown

Pittsburgh Post GazetteSaturday, October 06, 2007
By Mark Belko,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A panel of experts laid out its grand vision for Point Park University yesterday, one built around a move of the Pittsburgh Playhouse from Oakland to Downtown and acquisition of two prominent buildings to help transform the campus into an urban academic village.

In a presentation, the Urban Land Institute panel urged the university to acquire the One Smithfield Street building at Smithfield and Fort Pitt Boulevard and the YMCA Building on Boulevard of the Allies to help accomplish that.

The One Smithfield Street building would become the new home of the Pittsburgh Playhouse and an “iconic theater complex” that would serve as the university’s front door. The YMCA building would provide recreational space the university now lacks.

With the help of those acquisitions, the panel also recommended that Point Park create a “unique gathering place” for students along First Avenue filled with shops, housing, a student activity center and other amenities, the goal being to create a “hip yet secure space” to hang out.

The panel also saw the opportunity for limited retail opportunities on Wood Street, where most campus buildings are located and where Point Park could exert leadership in the corridor’s revitalization.

“Wow!” Point Park President Paul Hennigan said afterwards. “I guess we know what we’ll be doing for the next couple of years.”

The two buildings, if secured, would add to the university’s holdings Downtown, where it is already the second largest real estate owner with 14 properties.

No timetable or cost estimate was given for implementing the suggestions, but Dr. Hennigan said “there was nothing I heard or saw today that I thought was off the wall or unrealistic.” Point Park has made some $70 million in capital improvements in the last five years.

The university sought the help of the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute in planning future development. The eight-person panel spent the week in Pittsburgh and interviewed more than 120 people.

Dr. Hennigan estimated creating the kind of environment the panel envisions on First Avenue could cost about $20 million. Relocating the playhouse and building a new three-theater complex Downtown could run $30 million to $40 million.

The county is interested in selling One Smithfield Street and has asked developers to suggest how it would use the building and an adjacent parking lot.

Point Park has been looking at the YMCA building for more than three years. It hopes to decide within two months whether to pursue a purchase. The building is available because the Downtown Y will be moving to the old G.C. Murphy building on Fifth Avenue in late 2008 as part of the redevelopment of the Fifth and Forbes corridor.

The panel sees the acquisition of the One Smithfield Street and YMCA buildings and perhaps others on First Avenue as a way to increase Point Park’s visibility and to consolidate campus activity in the five-block area from Fort Pitt Boulevard to Forbes.

If the university can’t or doesn’t want to acquire the One Smithfield Street building, an alternate location for the theater complex would be the Fourth and Forbes properties, said Leigh Ferguson, ULI panel chair.

The panel emphasized that a key driver in the overall development would be housing. Point Park currently has roughly 750 beds on campus. Given projected enrollment increases, demand could rise to 2,000 beds by 2013.

On-campus housing not only creates a vibrant 24/7 environment for students, faculty, and others, but also would help to support retail shops, restaurants, bars and other activities, it said.

Panelist Belinda M. Sward urged caution, saying retail space Downtown now greatly exceeds demand with some stores at the risk of potential closing. Dr. Hennigan said the university found the retail information particularly helpful.

“What that says to us as we develop our space is not to jump the gun on the retail opportunity but to plan for it,” he said.

The panel also called for the creation of more informal outdoor and indoor gathering spots for students, improvements to Boulevard of the Allies, and street and facade renovations throughout the corridor, perhaps in conjunction with other property owners Downtown.

First published on October 6, 2007 at 12:00 am
Mark Belko can be reached at or 412-263-1262.

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