The One Constant About Downtown Pittsburgh Is Change
I arrived in Pittsburgh just after the Downtown Gimbels department store closed in 1986.
The store, which stood at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Smithfield Street, was an impressive building — beyond five floors of apparel, shoes and accessories, you could find artificial plants and candles on the sixth floor, sporting goods on seven, sewing machines and garden supplies on eight and stuff for your swimming pool on 11, according to The Department Store Museum website.
The building sat vacant for six years until New York developer Richard Penzer bought it in 1992 and attracted a Burlington Coat Factory, Barnes & Noble and Eckerd Drugs. But he couldn’t fill the upper floors. Building ownership changed. The North American headquarters of the H.J. Heinz Co. came — leading to a building name change to Heinz 57 Center — and went. Now the upper offices are filled with UPMC offices and services, and the rebranded Burlington is moving two blocks down Smithfield into another former department store building.
If there’s one constant about Downtown, it’s change.
As we emerge from this never-ending pandemic, Downtown is changing again, as our contributor Adam Smeltz writes in Reimagining Downtown. With more people continuing to work remotely — and leaving expensive office spaces empty — the pandemic has accelerated a transition that started before COVID-19 shut everything down in March 2020. Developers at a rapid clip are converting office buildings into residences, bringing a better balance to a Downtown top heavy with office space.
Since the 1950s, Downtown has been through three “renaissances,” spurring development of Point State Park, Gateway Center, many of the city’s skyscrapers, the convention center, the subway, the Cultural District and an expanded campus for Point Park University. In that time, we lost all five of our department stores and many big corporations. About 3,500 people were living Downtown in 2008; that number has now doubled and continues to grow.
Are we on the cusp of another renaissance? The excitement this summer is the long-awaited opening of Target in the former Kaufmann’s/Macy’s Department store on Fifth and Smithfield. It’s smaller than a suburban Target but carries many of the types of products once found at the old Gimbels (and Kaufmann’s, too), plus groceries. Burlington plans to open in the building this fall. There are already luxury apartments on the upper floors, plus a hotel.
As Smeltz writes, the Golden Triangle in the early 1800s was a place where people lived, worked and went to school. If changes continue as they are, we may be right back there.
Virginia Linn can be reached at email@example.com.