Downtown Pittsburgh: Reimagining a More Vibrant Neighborhood
The pandemic changed the golden triangle. What type of neighborhood will it ultimately become?
BILL SCHOSSOW (LEFT) AND CRAIG LINDSTROM OF INKWELL AT OXFORD. “WE WOULD LOVE TO SEE MORE RETAIL,” SAYS SCHOSSOW.
When they set out in 1998, Craig Lindstrom and Bill Schossow started a Downtown Pittsburgh business among businesses.
The Allegheny office building on Forbes Avenue, where they opened Inkwell Stationers on the 10th floor, enveloped them with prospective customers. About a block from the Allegheny County Courthouse, they focused on supplying law firms — selling necessities such as exhibit dividers for court trials.
Today those legal essentials share street-level space with seasonal gifts, high-end stationery and plenty of greeting cards. Renamed Inkwell at Oxford when it moved to One Oxford Centre in June 2018, the Downtown staple runs as a hybrid: a retail gift shop with corporate services in its DNA.
As Lindstrom and Schossow see more tourists, Downtown residents, college students and visiting parents, their old Allegheny Building digs have been reborn — converted to apartments that start around $1,350 a month. Offices there had been losing tenants when Inkwell left for its Oxford storefront on Fourth Avenue, the business partners say.
“We would love to see more retail. But the people who live down here — I think they’ll support whatever comes along,” Schossow says of the Golden Triangle. Residents “should get involved in the direction they want it to go.”
Inkwell’s evolution mirrors broader trends Downtown, where residential growth and uncertain demand for office space are driving a post-pandemic landscape that remains in transition. As neighborhood advocates wonder whether office workers will return in pre-pandemic numbers, they forecast a diversified city core with more residents, more stores and services, and rejuvenated activity across the arts and tourism.
But cultivating that new norm is likely to take several years of redevelopment, building-conversion projects and cooperation across the private and public sectors — an adjustment period that may test Downtown in the short term, regional leaders cautioned.
“We have a hard few years ahead,” says Mark Anthony Thomas, president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance nonprofit, pointing to depressed traffic Downtown well into 2022. “That hurts everyone Downtown.”
Cell-phone tracking data in May showed average daily activity from 76,920 residents, employees and visitors Downtown — up from pandemic lows but still down about 44% from 2019, according to the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. Major office buildings were logging about 22% occupancy that month.
Still, give it a decade, and Thomas imagines a Downtown that feels more like Squirrel Hill or central Lawrenceville — mixed-use hubs where it’s tough to distinguish workers from residents, he says.
“The hardest thing,” Thomas says, “is getting people to rethink what Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle is and should be.”
Even before COVID-19 cleared out Downtown office towers, their occupancy was changing.
Office vacancy rates had been rising for a few years, figures from commercial real estate firm CBRE Group Inc. show. By late 2019, amenity-rich offices known as Class A reached 13.3% vacancy, up from 6% in early 2015. Class B office vacancies went from 14.1% to 19.8% in the same period.
The dips coincided with office construction in adjacent neighborhoods, says Jeremy Waldrup, president and CEO at the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. Commercial offices make up about 70% of square footage Downtown, where daily workers topped 70,000 before the pandemic.
“Competition was heating up for commercial office space in ways that we hadn’t seen,” Waldrup says. As of spring 2022, builders were developing 2.5 million to 3 million square feet of offices in nearby areas such as the Strip District, he says.
More companies have headed to the Strip already, according to Arthur Ziegler, president emeritus at the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.
“We mostly had local firms that were just moving around” before the pandemic, says Michael Sriprasert, the foundation president. He remembered “every [Downtown] building was fighting and trying to find that one group that might come in from out of town — and that was rare.”
While office competition gathered steam, Downtown planners and developers saw opportunity in residents. Of 29 building conversions finished or in the works over the past 11 years, 21 have been or will be residential, according to the Downtown Partnership statistics released in May. Six are hotel projects.
“We found ourselves spending more and more time Downtown,” says resident Julie Maher, 51. “One day I said, ‘Why don’t we live down here?’” She and her husband moved from the suburbs in 2014.
From their two-bedroom apartment on the 27th floor at the Residences at the Historic Alcoa Building, they can see the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers, not to mention incoming storms. They traded yard work and house upkeep for easy social gatherings, biking trails and walkable conveniences such as restaurants and farmers markets, Maher says, describing her urban lifestyle as “a lot more European.”
When the pandemic struck in March 2020, the couple watched many of those amenities throttle back. Visitors and employees Downtown plunged to fewer than 20,000 a day — down from more than 120,000 a day, according to the partnership.
“It was ghostly on some days,” says James Hill, at the time an executive assistant to then-Mayor Bill Peduto. “If it was raining or snowy, it was like you were in a movie with no one else around.”
For weeks, Hill estimates, he was among perhaps 20 people working routinely in person at the century-old City-County Building on Grant Street. “A building like that, it groans and it creaks. You can hear that a lot more without the pitter and the patter of people moving about and doing business. It’s a little bit corny, but I never felt closer to the office. You become so much more attuned to the fine detail of a place.”
But for as many workers and visitors who steered clear, residents largely stayed committed to Downtown. The residential headcount slipped by just a little more than 100 — from 5,672 to 5,564 — from 2019 to 2020 after growing nearly 22% in the prior five years, according to the partnership.
By 2021, the tally jumped another 19%, adding nearly 1,100 to reach 6,637 residents. The count eclipsed 7,000 in 2022, a practical doubling of the residential community in a dozen years. Another thousand-or-so new residential units are expected by 2024.
Among office-to-residential conversions underway are two buildings that housed the former GNC headquarters and the YWCA, both on Wood Street; the former PPG Warehouse on Fort Duquesne Boulevard; and the eight-story building on Smithfield Street that once housed the Smithfield Cafe.
Still, Downtown needs at least 10,000 residents to break out as an emerging neighborhood attractive to national retailers and in-demand service providers such as doggie daycares, Thomas says. He puts that threshold within the foreseeable future.
“We need to celebrate and amplify Downtown as a place where people should be investing,” Thomas adds.
Waldrup offered a goal of 15,000 residents — enough population density to drive traffic through nights and weekends and to make the neighborhood more resilient, he says.
Downtowns elsewhere that drew residential growth before the pandemic proved better able to recover from the shutdowns and losses of the health crisis, according to David Downey, CEO of the International Downtown Association in Washington, D.C.
“We witnessed that single-use central business districts are the ones that are going to suffer the most,” Downey says. The pandemic illustrated that “complete communities where people can work, play, live and innovate will prosper most and be most resilient.”
For Pittsburgh, working toward that holistic ideal also means confronting homelessness, housing affordability and public safety.
Investing in Access
In the months before the pandemic, living Downtown was like having a built-in magnet. Longtime residents recalled friends migrating into the Golden Triangle for events, dinners and happy hours.
“I didn’t have to go see my friends anymore. Everybody was coming Downtown because this is where they wanted to be,” says Adele Morelli, owner of Boutique La Passerelle on Wood Street and a 23-year Downtown resident.
When the coronavirus pandemic arrived, that vibe changed in an instant. The only people around were residents, who mostly stayed in; essential workers who were passing through; and people who didn’t have anywhere to go and were living on the streets, Morelli says.
“It was rough,” she recalls. “It was a tough environment.”
More than two years on, supporting those without a home still ranks as a key for Downtown-area leaders and policymakers, they say.
In a joint effort, construction began last summer on Second Avenue Commons, a foundation- and corporate-supported Uptown shelter that’s meant to ease access for those experiencing homelessness. A 2022 opening date is expected for the 95-bed facility, for which the city and Urban Development Authority provided land.
“I look at those people as my neighbors, too,” says Morelli, who sits on the Downtown Partnership board. Although she’s never felt unsafe Downtown, she has felt uncomfortable bearing witness “from a human perspective,” she says.
“How can you not,” she adds, “seeing people who don’t have a bed to sleep in at night?”
An Allegheny County-led survey of those experiencing homelessness identified 880 people countywide in February, up by more than 100 from a similar count in 2019. The data weren’t separated by neighborhood, but a weekly count by the Downtown Partnership finds about 20 to 25 people who sleep outdoors in the Golden Triangle, Waldrup says.
“Our shelters are full. We are seeing more folks,” he says. “Most of the time, these people are here because they feel safe — they’re sleeping on streets where they know people will be.”
Collaborations to support that population are among several areas where the public sector is crucial to Downtown’s success, Waldrup says. Neighborhood boosters talk often with county and city officials about incentive prospects for affordable housing and about the Downtown economy overall, according to parties involved.
In May, Waldrup said he hoped for a specific public announcement by late summer. In a separate conversation, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald says the state, county and city governments were committing around $3 million apiece to support residential conversions and related efforts Downtown.
“We want to make sure that we’re investing in housing and that affordability — workforce housing — is part of that, so folks who work in Downtown Pittsburgh are able to afford to live in Downtown Pittsburgh,” Fitzgerald said in June.
“A certain percentage of that residential space” will be affordable housing, he says. “This remains a pilot program to see if we can get things moving in a good direction. I do think this will be an ongoing conversation.”
The pilot is a win-win as developers look to more challenging conversion projects, says Brandon Mendoza, executive director at the NAIOP Pittsburgh, the regional chapter of the Commercial Real Estate Development Association.
“The easier ones are already in the process of being converted,” he says. But office buildings constructed after the 1930s tend to be tougher conversions “from an architectural standpoint.”
For instance, older structures are often smaller and their windows are on a residential scale. More recent construction has a more commercial feel that’s harder to modify, Mendoza says.
He estimated Downtown needs a roughly $50 million fund to help scale up residential conversions over the next five to 10 years. Advocates will push Pennsylvania gubernatorial nominees Josh Shapiro and Doug Mastriano to support economic incentives for Downtown development, he says.
“You need a fund so you can start to entice projects,” Mendoza says. The subsidy could help developers improve energy efficiency, adjust layouts, honor historic integrity and comply with zoning rules — all extra expenses associated with office-to-residential projects, he says.
Investors “are looking at various segments of the [development] industry and thinking about what’s going to have the highest return” in the Pittsburgh region, Mendoza adds. A designated fund would “help plug the gap” to promote conversions.
Another hurdle cited by neighborhood boosters: feelings of safety. Downtown resident Lindsey Meyers Van der Veer, 39, says she detected more street harassment amid the pandemic. She blamed a lack of foot traffic, describing a sense of emptiness and diminished amenities into 2022.
“This is not the place people want to meet me for coffee,” says Van der Veer, who works in event planning and was weighing a move out of the Golden Triangle. “When I tell people I live Downtown, it is not their first choice to eat down here” anymore.
Perceptions of less safe, less hospitable surroundings cropped up in many cities, although crime rates “pale in comparison” to 1990s, ’80s and ’70s crime, Downey says. Crises involving people with mental illness or substance-use issues may be more visible during the relative quiet of the pandemic, according to Downtown advocates.
In Pittsburgh, Downtown’s official crime statistics show a dip in recent years. Reported “Part I” crimes such as robbery, aggravated assault and theft dropped by more than 200 from 2019 to 2020, and known “Part II” crimes such as simple assault, vandalism and drug offenses slipped by nearly 500. Both categories saw little change in 2021, the most recent period for which neighborhood breakdowns were readily available.
Prospects for reinforcing Downtown include a stronger security presence, more aid for underserved groups and coordination among buildings with in-house security — and each idea is under discussion by public officials and Downtown advocates, Thomas says. A working group of the leaders began assembling in fall 2021 to explore recommendations for the Golden Triangle, he says.
Tamping down crime is a top priority for Mayor Ed Gainey, who started his first term in January. In April, he announced in a video address to the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership that a police substation on Liberty Avenue near the Fairmont Hotel would be converted into a public safety center. He envisioned it would become a community hub, where people would seek information about services, have access to public bathrooms and essentially have a safe space.
Stepping Forward — and Back
From a historical standpoint, the residential surge returns Downtown to its past.
Pittsburghers in the early 1800s lived, worked and went to school all near the confluence of the three rivers, says Anne Madarasz, chief historian at the Heinz History Center.
“It’s very much where we started as a city,” she says.
Downtown has also seen reinvention before, having been a hotbed of industry, a department-store mecca and a hub of corporate headquarters — all in the last century.
In fact, its ability to retain jobs stands out among northern Rust Belt cities, many of which saw employment migrate to suburbs, says regional economist Christopher Briem.
“Some will say there’s no ring road, no beltway equivalent that’s created that ring of growth around the city,” says Briem, who works at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research.
Plus, public bus routes and transportation infrastructure channel workers toward the Downtown core, he says. ”The truth is, there are a lot of different patterns of success.”
Once a major source of jobs, landmark Downtown department stores have transitioned to a blend of uses, including office space, Briem notes. The 13-story former Kaufmann’s on Fifth Avenue now features 311 luxury apartments and the 160-room Even Hotel, with a 50,000-square-foot Burlington department store expected to open this fall. As of press time, a 22,000-square-foot Target on the first floor was on the verge of opening, which also adds groceries to the mix.
Visitors have been returning to Downtown faster than employees, according to partnership data. About 45,000 visitors a day were turning up in May, compared with about 29,140 daily Downtown employees that month.
Blockbuster live shows with big-name recognition were faring particularly well, says J. Kevin McMahon, outgoing president and CEO at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. He credited a strong urge to get out and about, noting some performances were reaching or exceeding pre-pandemic attendance.
“People have thought about how life is short, life is precious and you need to live life to the fullest,” McMahon says. “If you take that philosophy, I think there’s a lot of reason to be very hopeful that things are going to get better as we move forward in the coming years.”
Adam Smeltz is a former staff reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.