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The Changing Face of Downtown Living

As Pittsburgh’s civic center evolves, so does the mix of singles, young families and busy professionals who choose to make their homes within steps of the Golden Triangle.




photos by Laura Petrilla
 

 

The baby is napping, for now. Mary Claire Arena steps outside for a few moments of fresh air. She sits down, a large patio umbrella shielding her from the afternoon sun. The inflatable kiddie pool that an hour ago was filled with the motion and giggles of her daughter and her neighbors’ kids now rests silently.

Her break doesn’t last long. The baby monitor shows her daughter restless and half-awake. So she steps inside to make sure this energetic, not-quite 1-year-old doesn’t attempt to scale the walls of her crib. Heading through the doorway, she glances over her shoulder to take in the scenery once more.

But this 30-year-old mother’s view doesn’t include the grassy lawn or clusters of trees that we reflexively associate with raising babies in America. She doesn’t see the compact, neatly fenced yards and houses found in the suburbs.

She looks directly at the glass and steel skyscrapers of Pittsburgh with the Allegheny River and PNC Park beyond.

Mary and her husband, WPXI-TV anchor Joe Arena, are raising their daughter in the Penn Garrison loft apartments on Penn Avenue, downtown. They are part of a growing community of people who are choosing to make their homes amid our city’s office towers instead of its culs-de-sac.

The downtown community is evolving slowly but steadily. A mix of cultural shifts, creative use of technology and the ever-growing availability of chic but affordable apartments — not to mention proximity to arts events and award-winning restaurants — are drawing more full-time residents each year.

 


 

Calling Downtown Home


Spend a Saturday people-watching in the Golden Triangle, and you’ll see babies in strollers. You’ll see young couples and singles running errands before heading home to apartments or out for dinner or drinks. You’ll see folks in their 50s who choose to reside in the very heart of their city rather than its suburban outskirts.

It’s easy to assume, as you take in Pittsburgh’s shimmering downtown skyline from a distance, that it’s a place populated by pinstripe-suited business people by day but left empty at nightfall. A decade ago, you would have been right. Since 2000, however, the city center’s resident population has grown by 40 percent to about 9,000 people, according to the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.

Its denizens are getting younger, too: A PDP survey in late 2012 found a sharp increase in downtown residents in their 40s and a decrease in those older than 70.

The survey also showed that 27 percent of residents are younger than 30 (including children), and an estimated 62 percent are younger than 50.

Rather than being a mix of lower-income families and the very wealthy as they had been, downtown’s household incomes now fall in a more moderate range. The PDP’s 2012 data shows a notable increase in households that earn between $51,000 and $150,000. That group rose from 43 percent in 2010 to 56 percent in 2012. The survey also showed a corresponding drop in the number of downtown residents with household incomes below $50,000. About 28 percent of residents fell in that category in 2010, but only 17 percent did in 2012.

 


 

Out and About


Ralph Falbo, resident and developer of the 151 First Side building, says many condo owners in his building are professionals in their 40s, 50s and 60s who want the luxury of a large home without the upkeep. Units in 151 First Side, which overlooks the Monongahela River on Fort Pitt Boulevard, can be customized with crown molding, granite countertops and upgraded hardwood floors. A covered drop-off area in front makes loading a car for a trip or getting dropped off by a taxi after a vacation as simple as it would be in a suburban driveway.

People who choose downtown want an active lifestyle filled with social engagements and culture, says Angie Paiano, who grew up in the North Hills but says she couldn’t imagine living anywhere but downtown today. As a leasing consultant for PMC Property Group, Paiano meets people each day who “just want to come to the city.” Her company owns four downtown apartment complexes that offer rentals ranging from studios starting at $1,000 per month to one- to two-bedroom, two-floor lofts with stairs in the units starting at $1,600.

Three of those buildings are on Penn Avenue: Penn Garrison and 908 Penn Avenue are on a quiet, tree-lined stretch between Ninth Street and Garrison Place, and 526 Penn Avenue is off Sixth Street, closer to the Point. The fourth, 201 Stanwix, is the former Bell Telephone Building on Stanwix Street, where tenants enter through a gleaming, retro marble lobby.

In all four buildings, such architectural touches as exposed brick walls and steel beams remind tenants these were once industrial spaces tied to Pittsburgh’s history. Roof decks offer a place to soak in the city while grilling a steak or hanging out with neighbors. Huge windows in units make the most of gorgeous views and sunshine.

Paiano says some residents move downtown because they’re starting over or just looking for a change.

“Down here, you can make friends,” says Paiano. People are active — often out several nights each week at events and restaurants. If you want to socialize, she says, you’ll find lots of company.

Then there are those young parents. Although the PDP’s survey found that only 6 percent of downtown households included three or more people in late 2013, downtown couples who had babies last year aren’t necessarily high-tailing it out of town. At least not yet.

“We are starting to see strollers,” says Jeremy Waldrup, president and CEO of the PDP.

 


 

A Different American Dream


Kathleen Durst was more amused than embarrassed when the mechanic arrived recently to jump her car’s dead battery.

“You know,” the mechanic muttered, “you really need to start your car at least once a week if you want to be able to use it.” Durst, who couldn’t remember when she last drove it, promised to keep that in mind.

Durst is perfectly happy to go weeks at a time without driving. She and her husband, Dr. Kostas Verdelis, walk or take mass transit just about everywhere from their downtown home in the Penn Garrison.

A generation ago, it would have been hard to imagine this family anywhere but the suburbs: Dr. Verdelis is a dentist who works at the University of Pittsburgh full-time conducting research and teaching. The couple has a 1-year-old son and a cuddly cocker spaniel that loves the outdoors.

Durst is a social worker who works from home for a foundation based in New York City and has a small private practice downtown. Born in Florida, she has many friends who have embraced the goal of owning a spacious house with a sprawling yard. But she says the isolation of the suburbs turns her off. Even the semi-suburban neighborhoods surrounding downtown don’t offer quite enough convenience or appeal, she says.

Downtown life is “meeting all of our needs,” says Durst. Their two-bedroom rental is larger than any apartment they had while previously living in Manhattan, yet rent is far lower. In their building, one-bedroom/one-bath units cost between $1,200 and $1,600 per month.
Nearby at 526 Penn Avenue, owned by PMC, one-bedrooms can be had for $1,300. Two-bedroom rentals have a price tag of $1,750 to $1,895.

Will appealing rents and the city vibe keep couples downtown as their families grow? Durst says yes: Even if more children come along, “we’re almost 100 percent sure we’re going to buy downtown.”

Nearly 33 percent of all downtown residents the PDP surveyed at the end of 2012 said they expect to stay two years or less. But an almost identically sized group of people said they plan to live downtown for 10 years or more.

After years of development, today’s downtown allows families to experience the bustle and beauty of city life, with their kids cruising the avenues in strollers rather than cooped up in car seats. Streets are clean. Parents say they’re not concerned about crime. In fact, 94 percent of the downtown dwellers the PDP polled said they feel “safe” or “very safe” in the daytime; nearly 60 percent said they have that same feeling at night. Only 11.5 percent said they feel “not too safe” or “not safe at all” when they’re out in the evening.

Data backs up these impressions: The total number of criminal offenses reported downtown dropped 29 percent between 2010 and 2011, according to the PDP.

 


 

Walking and Talking


As suburbs have spread out farther from America’s cities, the costs and commutes associated with living in them have grown dramatically. The generation that grew up watching “The Brady Bunch” was followed by one that saw suburbia through the far less rose-colored lens of “American Beauty” and other pop-culture deconstructions of family life.

Members of that generation now want walkable, multiple-use, multicultural neighborhoods. They want to spend their free time living their lives, not idling in traffic or maintaining lawns and houses.

“They’re professional people, and they’re busy,” says Falbo. Many put in long hours at demanding jobs. They want their leisure time to be just that — leisurely.

His building, he says, is focused on providing quality of life: More than 85 percent of the units have a balcony or terrace, and most are large enough for entertaining a group. Master bathrooms can offer ceramic floors, a large shower and separate soaking tub — perfect antidotes to a hectic day.

Outside, Market Square is a three-minute walk. “It’s so easy to just go over to Market Square and get dinner,” says Falbo. In fact, he says, “it’s too easy.” Residents in his building eat out quite often, despite their large kitchens with plenty of cooking and storage space.

“It’s a very walkable city,” and the downtown area is actually quite small, says Paiano. “You can walk from one side of downtown to the other in a few minutes.”

The city’s size is part of the secret to its charm. Large office towers sit side-by-side with plenty of low-slung buildings such as those in Market Square. Even as Pittsburgh’s popularity has grown nationwide, it hasn’t drawn huge crowds of tourists. Odd as it may sound, downtown can be surprisingly quiet and kid-friendly. Sidewalks tend to be notably less crowded than they are in larger cities. Then there’s that friendly Pittsburgh vibe that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Each day, Mary Arena and her daughter set out on foot to run errands, visit the Carnegie Library branch on Smithfield Street or take swim lessons at the YMCA.

“She gets to hear and see so much,” says Arena, noting the impact is becoming clear. The baby’s go-to word isn’t “Mama” or “Dada.” It’s an enthusiastic “Hi!” because that’s what people are constantly saying to her as she passes in her stroller.

 


 

Where Is the Tipping Point?


Right now, families like the Arenas are forerunners. A few major challenges remain for downtown to become a common choice for large numbers of families. The most crucial: the size of available housing. When Waldrup moved to Pittsburgh two years ago to begin work at the PDP, he naturally looked for a home downtown.

“We thought, ‘We’re coming from Brooklyn. We don’t need a lot of space,’” he remembers. But as parents of two with a third baby on the way, he and his wife discovered that “there was nothing that was kind of family-sized that was available.” So they moved to the East End.

Waldrup says downtown developers still focus on “creating housing stock for singles and couples without children,” though some may be exploring the idea of constructing larger units.

A decade from now, it’s likely you’ll see many families living downtown, says John Valentine, executive director of the Pittsburgh Downtown Community Development Corporation. “But we’re not there yet.”

The trickling of young families may eventually reach a tipping point that will convince developers to build larger apartments and condos. Falbo points out that some creative homebuyers are solving the problem themselves: Several owners at 151 First Side have purchased two adjacent units and merged them into one home.

One key to enticing families to move downtown, says Valentine, is making sure young couples enjoy city life so much they’ll choose to accept smaller living spaces. Another factor is mindset: Folks who have lived in other cities or have tried parenting in more expensive urban centers are very open to the relative ease of raising kids in downtown Pittsburgh.

Joe Arena grew up in a Manhattan apartment, sharing space with his brother, riding elevators and taking taxis as a matter of habit. Raising his daughter in a two-bedroom loft on Penn Avenue with high ceilings and an accessible roof garden, to him, is a no-brainer. His neighbors with kids all lived in New York before coming to Pittsburgh. They watched friends there raise children in even smaller apartments.

For folks who were brought up in the suburbs — especially lifelong residents of greater Pittsburgh — Waldrup says it can be tough to jettison the ingrained mindset that having kids means, “I have to move to the South Hills.”

Among downtown residents surveyed in 2012, 41 percent said they lived in Allegheny County’s suburbs before moving downtown. No doubt some will move back.

 


 

Questions Remain


For some, the biggest question about moving downtown involves education options. Traditionally, some Pittsburgh-area parents have sought out communities such as Pine-Richland and Upper St. Clair because of the public schools’ stellar reputations — and the ease of automatically enrolling their children in buildings close to home.

Right now, there are no general public elementary or secondary schools in the neighborhood. The automatic “feeder” schools for residents of the 15222 ZIP code are in the Hill District — Pittsburgh Miller for pre-K through 5th grade and Pittsburgh Milliones/U Prep for grades 6 through 12.

Parents also may consider navigating the public-school system’s magnet school application process; Ebony Pugh, public information officer for the city schools, says the magnet application process isn’t difficult, and many students are accepted to schools of choice. Or parents may apply to religious schools or a private school such as Shady Side Academy, the Ellis School or Falk Laboratory School on the University of Pittsburgh campus.

Durst says she isn’t concerned about finding a good school for her son once he nears kindergarten age. “I went to private school,” she says, “so I guess I’m more of a private-school person.”

With tuition easily exceeding $10,000 per school year per child, however, Pittsburgh’s private schools may prove too expensive for some families.

Valentine also points out that kids like to be around other kids. Living downtown with only a handful of other youngsters nearby works for some but can be lonely for others.

Sports-minded kids can join organizations such as Squirrel Hill’s Dynamo Soccer, which admits children from any area community. Still, that’s not quite the same as playing on a soccer or baseball team with neighbors and schoolmates.

For other families, the lack of a large supermarket downtown may be a deal-breaker. More than one-third of those the PDP surveyed say their least favorite thing about living downtown is not having a nearby supermarket.

Valentine, however, noted the drive time to a large store is the same for people who live in the suburbs, and he believes a small store can satisfy residents’ immediate needs.

In the fall, the PDP announced it was collaborating with Giant Eagle on a feasibility study, conducted by a third-party, for a downtown location, but no plans are final. Falbo notes he, Ernie and Julian Vallozzi and David Priselac Jr. plan to add a small, upscale grocery store this spring.

Kathleen Durst says she is surprised to learn the lack of a grocery store is a drawback for some. Technology, she says, has already solved this problem: She shops for produce by walking to the Strip, and she may make a monthly trip to a grocery that requires a drive. She gets nearly everything else — paper towels, diapers and other nonperishable household necessities — from online vendors with free shipping.

Still, the question remains: Will downtown prove so appealing that the newest generation of parents will find ways to surmount these challenges?

 


 

What’s Already Working?


The advantages of downtown living — especially for families — keep increasing. Waldrup says day-care centers are plentiful. Numerous colleges and universities that dot the city offer access to a pool of potential babysitters.

Green space has steadily improved: Point State Park is popular with families, though some parents wish for more playgrounds. At the luxury condo building Piatt Place on Fifth, a central courtyard is a tiny oasis for residents —a perfect place to eat lunch al fresco. Outdoor enthusiasts take advantage of biking and hiking trails and kayaking opportunities that offer spectacular views — more than half of all residents surveyed in 2012 said they use the riverfront park system on a daily or weekly basis.

Got lots of stuff? Many buildings offer basement storage for residents, and some apartments have other space-saving solutions. In 151 First Side, the units have large, open kitchens with ample cabinets, and window seats that line the panoramic windows have hidden storage space. 

In 151 First Side and Piatt Place, you’ll find master bedrooms with walk-in closets, something many older homes in Pittsburgh’s suburbs lack.

Entrepreneurs are even stepping in: Working families who want their kids to grow up with pets despite a lack of a grassy backyard can call Downtown Pittsburgh Dogs for dog-walking and pet-sitting services. Survey data show dog ownership downtown has risen an estimated 9 percent between 2008 and 2012.

Mary Arena says downtown family life is falling into place as parents find their own creative solutions. Recently, when she and other local mothers found the Smithfield Street library didn’t offer a “story time” for toddlers, they decided to propose their group of moms host public storytelling sessions in the branch.

“It’s up to us to start these things,” says Arena. 

 


 

A Strip District Option


Pittsburghers will tell you that downtown and the Strip District are two entirely different places, with distinct personalities and offerings. That’s true. Still, they are connected — walk a few blocks, and you’ve gone from one to the other. Like downtown, the Strip is becoming a popular spot to live rather than just to visit.

There will eventually be space for growing families: An announcement in September about the redevelopment of the former Wholey’s cold-storage building on Penn Avenue into residential apartments included an interesting detail — the plan is for a high number of two-bedroom and “generously sized” one-bedroom units.

In the Cork Factory building (pictured above) in the Strip, all three-bedroom units, at press time, were occupied. Along with ample space, the Cork Factory and the nearby Lot 24 building, owned by the same company, offer stylish industrial design such as concrete floors and exposed brick walls as well as outdoor perks.

A one-bedroom/one-bath unit at 755 square feet can be rented in the Cork Factory for $1,450. In Lot 24, a slightly smaller apartment is available for $1,616. That’s slightly more than a comparably sized apartment at Penn Garrison.

While Penn Garrison offers a small roof deck as its sole outdoor amenity, Lot 24 boasts a landscaped terrace with a hot tub, heated pool and barbecue grills. The Cork Factory does, too.

“You’re still within the city limits, but you’re not ‘in the city,’” says Heather Leitner, the Cork Factory’s general manager. For renters, she says, “It’s like their own little paradise.”

Downtown families already take advantages of such services as “Mommy and Me” yoga classes in the Strip and visit the neighborhood frequently for grocery shopping and dining. More children are slowly influencing the addition of more kid-friendly businesses and services.

“It’s residents, residents, residents,” says Valentine. “As you build more density, the retail corporations will want to be here.” Developers, too, may be inspired to add large-unit buildings.

 

Hot downtown locations


151 First Side
■ Location: 151 Fort Pitt Blvd. off Stanwix Street, overlooking the Monongahela River on one side and looking toward PPG Place on the other.
■ Nearly every unit has an eye-popping view.
■ Condos for purchase
■ Sizes range from one- to three-bedrooms, but owners can merge two apartments.
■ Not furnished
■ Minimum 9-foot ceilings in most cases
■ Large, open kitchens can be designed
■ Walk-in closets in master suites, plus soaking tub and separate shower can be designed
■ Street-level bike storage, parking inside building
■ Covered drop-off area in driveway
■ Private storage areas available for use within building
■ Residents may use conference room.

 

526 Penn Avenue
■ Location: Penn Avenue, just off Sixth Street
■ Rental apartments, not for purchase
■ One- and two-bedroom units
■ Starbucks a few doors down, and Six Penn Kitchen across the street
■ Very close to theaters and an easy walk to PNC Park
■ Great design, with industrial feel — new windows appear to have been made in a vintage factory; lobby and gym have some exposed beams or brick walls
■ Hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances, granite countertops
■ Rooftop community deck with incredible views
■ Pet-friendly (cats and small dogs)
■ Washer/dryer in units
■ State-of-the-art fitness center
■ Doorman on site
■ Laundry service on site

 

201 Stanwix
■ Location: Stanwix Street at Boulevard of the Allies, in former Bell Telephone Building
■ Rental apartments, not for purchase
■ One- and two-bedroom apartments
■ Granite countertops, stainless-steel appliances, hardwood floors, big windows, very sunny
■ Private gym for tenants
■ No on-site parking, but discounts are available for residents at nearby garages
■ Retro marble lobby
■ Pet-friendly
■ Washer/dryer in units
■ Doorman on site
■ Laundry service

 

908 Penn Avenue
■ Location: Penn Avenue between Ninth Street and Garrison Place
■ Apartments for rent
■ One- and two-bedroom units
■ Historic building dates from 1896, newly renovated
■ Exposed brick in apartments
■ Large windows, very sunny
■ Access to rooftop deck, fitness center and lobby concierge at the Penn Garrison
■ Quiet, tree-lined stretch of Penn Avenue
■ Washer/dryer in units
■ Laundry service
■ Hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances, granite countertops
■ Pet-friendly
Penn Garrison
■ Location: 915 Penn Avenue (same block as 908 Penn Avenue building)
■ Apartments for rent
■ Studios, one-bedrooms, one-bedrooms with studies, two–bedrooms, and one- or two-bedroom two-story lofts with stairs in units
■ 12- to-22-foot ceilings, very large windows admit lots of sun and make units feel huge
■ Rooftop deck
■ Doorman and onsite management
■ Cats and small dogs permitted
■ State-of-the-art fitness center
■ Laundry service on site

 

Piatt Place
■ Location: Fifth Avenue between Wood and Smithfield streets, in the heart of downtown
■ Luxury condos for purchase
■ One- or two-bedroom units
■ Washer/dryer in each unit, private gym in building
■ Building includes office and retail space
■ All units have balconies with space for grilling and dining
■ Lots of customization: you can do construction, merge two apartments, or upgrade fixtures, countertops or appliances
■ Building hallways have windows with view of courtyard
■ Parking garage in building
■ McCormick & Schmick’s and Capital Grille downstairs
■ Walk-in closets in master bedrooms
■ Granite countertops in kitchens and bathrooms
■ Large kitchens and the option for a direct-vent fireplace

 

Market Square Place
■ Location: Inside the former G.C. Murphy building on Market Square
■ 50 loft-style apartments
■ Individual parking spots under the building
■ Adjacent to the Fairmont Pittsburgh Hotel
■ Units range from 700-square-foot studios to 2,000-square-foot penthouses
■ Each unit is unique. All have huge windows, washer/dryer, ENERGY STAR appliances
■ Rooftop courtyard
■ YMCA in building


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