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Deep In The Heart of Downtown

Downtown Pittsburgh is booming. The Golden Triangle has grown in ways that previous generations may never have envisioned, and the perception of the neighborhood at the heart of Pittsburgh is changing rapidly –– for the better.



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Photo by dave dicello

 

With more residents moving in, more cultural and dining destinations and the redevelopment of communal space, the perception of Downtown Pittsburgh is quickly changing — and with construction and development a constant, the boom is far from over. We update you on its theater and food culture, public spaces, projects in the works and much more.
 


Photos by chuck beard

 

Downtown is Moving on Up.

When Dan Adamski wants to impress out-of-town guests, he shows them his new patio. It’s a nicer patio than most, perching as it does 12 stories above the flourishing café scene of Market Square.

Adamski, who heads the local office of Chicago-based commercial real estate firm JLL, has been selling and leasing corporate office space in Pittsburgh for 17 years. He got his own new office — and that patio — when JLL moved its 500 local employees into Tower Two Sixty on Forbes Avenue in time for the building’s opening in May. “It’s been tremendous to see the evolution of the city,” he says. “It’s very exciting to be part of it.”

Downtown Pittsburgh has seen its share of booms and busts in two centuries. The present upward trend — with its mix of new skyscrapers and landmark restoration, improved parks and public spaces, and an explosion of new culinary and cultural offerings — might be enough to lock in the Golden Triangle’s status for years to come as one of America’s most beloved downtowns.

Stand in recently renovated Mellon Square and turn in a slow circle, and you can see it in microcosm: the ornate Union Trust Building marking its centennial with a $100 million facelift; workers laying the foundation for a new building where Saks Fifth Avenue stood; the once-emptying Oliver Building gutted and fully refurbished, with a hotel occupying its top 10 stories; Alcoa’s aluminum-clad ex-headquarters, now marketed as luxury condos; and in the shadow of the historic Omni William Penn Hotel, the twinkling lights of the rooftop biergarten at the boutique Hotel Monaco.

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership’s annual “State of Downtown Pittsburgh” report, released in May, reported 196 building permits were filed in 2015 in the Central Business District, the third time in four years the number has approached 200. Last year saw 23 new restaurants debut in the Golden Triangle. Three new hotels have opened Downtown since 2015, and at least five more are under construction or about to be, raising some industry concerns about oversupply. “I think we feel comfortable Downtown about the pace of development,” says Jeremy Waldrup, president and CEO of the partnership. “But with every new hotel announcement, everyone kind of looks at each other and says, ‘All right, are we done?’”

More people are coming to stay long-term too. In the past five years, population in the city’s central business district is up 33 percent, to about 5,000 residents. Rents are rising with more upscale apartments — and so, at times, are tempers. City Councilman Daniel Lavelle, whose district includes Downtown, says he is dealing with a lot more noise complaints from residents. If it isn’t the bars, it’s the jackhammers. “Moving from a workplace center to a 24-hour live-work-play scenario brings challenges the city never had to deal with,” he says.

Not since Pittsburgh’s first Renaissance, anyway. In the city’s postwar transformation into a modern corporate showplace, Mayor David Lawrence brought in bulldozers to demolish his own childhood neighborhood and make room for Point State Park and the stainless steel towers of Gateway Center. Renaissance II in the 1980s added a Downtown subway and more skyscrapers, though that boosterism was tempered by the shuttering of steel mills throughout the region.

So is it Renaissance III now? To some, perhaps. But don’t say that to Mayor Bill Peduto. “The Renaissance era ran its course after the collapse of heavy industry ...” he says. “Now we’re in a different era.” Peduto claims two big contrasts between past and present revitalization: Downtown no longer is being planned chiefly for cars, but instead the emphasis is much stronger on the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and mass transit; and historic preservation is preferred today over “the wrecking-ball approach to urban development.”

The latter is vindication for Arthur P. Ziegler Jr., president and co-founder of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. When he started fighting city hall and big developers 50 years ago, Ziegler says he was inspired by Jane Jacobs, who in her 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” singled out Pittsburgh as an urban center being “witlessly murdered” by urban planners and their sterile towers.

Now, by rehabbing old shops on Market and Wood streets for small retailers such as Heinz Healey’s Gentlemen’s Apparel, Market Street Grocery, Boutique La Passerelle and Katie’s Kandy, Ziegler says the foundation is helping to rebuild the varied and busy streetscapes Jacobs championed. “If you walk down Penn, Liberty or Forbes and you arrive at Gateway Center, there’s almost nobody walking in Gateway Center,” he says. “They’re all across the street with the old buildings, the shops and the restaurants.”

Instead of recycling a renaissance, Peduto prefers shifting shapes. His aim is to turn the Golden Triangle into a “Golden Quadrangle” by strengthening linkages across the rivers and uptown. The most ambitious effort would heal the Renaissance’s ugliest scar — the razing of the Lower Hill in the late 1950s and early 1960s and its severance from the city (by what now is Interstate 579/Crosstown Boulevard) to build a cultural “acropolis” that wound up being only the Civic Arena.
Councilman Lavelle, a lifelong Hill District resident, is a strong proponent of a plan to build a 3-acre park over I-579, a project expected to cost upwards of $30 million. It’s a formula that worked for Chicago, which stretched its lush Millennium Park over still-functioning railroad tracks, and Madrid, which buried six miles of arterial highway under a new riverfront park.

“When we demolished the Lower Hill, we displaced hundreds of businesses and tore apart the economic core of the community, and it has never recovered,” says Lavelle. But today’s pace of change has him feeling keenly optimistic. 

“A decade from now, I would say the biggest change will be that the Hill District has seamlessly blended into Downtown to the benefit of all.” —Mark Houser
 

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