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Staying true to Pittsburgh neighborhoods a challenge for developers
Tom Fontaine | Trib Total Media

 

Developers tried to incorporate SouthSide Works into the existing neighborhood when it was built. Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media

It's not easy to weave upscale apartments, condominiums and office buildings into historic neighborhoods known for their gritty charm, developers and architects say.

 

Pittsburgh has a lot of the latter and is rapidly getting more of the former.

 

The Strip District is the latest target. Developers this month announced plans for 700 luxury apartments near the historic Produce Terminal that will feature designated areas to store kayaks, wash dogs and charge electric cars. Rents will be as much as $2,200 a month.

 

“I'm typically a big fan of progress, but many (in the Strip) fear how some of the developments will change the vistas and feel of the Strip,” said John Jordan, 49, who owns a condo at the Otto Milk building that opened in 2011. “I'm more optimistic. Everything you do changes it somewhat, but I think the Strip will remain an iconic American neighborhood.”

 

Developers are committing billions of dollars to large-scale projects that propose a mix of housing, offices and retail in areas with rich histories.

 

They include plans at the former LTV Steel Co. site in Hazelwood ($1 billion in proposed development), the former Civic Arena site in the Lower Hill District ($440 million), along the shore of the Allegheny River in the Strip District between 11th and 21st streets ($400 million) and 25th and 27th streets ($130 million), and transit-oriented development in East Liberty ($127 million).

 

“It's a constant struggle for all of our neighborhoods in the city to maintain a sense of authenticity when development projects happen,” said Matthew Galluzzo, executive director of Lawrence­ville Corp., a nonprofit development group in an area that has had some of the city's most explosive growth.

 

Several of the city's high-profile developments feature buildings that are similar in appearance. They incorporate large windows, multiple colors and metal and brick into facades that are layered with some sections jutting out farther than others.

Pittsburgh Planning Director Ray Gastil said the design is part of the “vernacular of contemporary urban architecture,” much as the use of yellow brick was in construction throughout the city around the turn of the 20th century.

 

“I'd be happy if everything (being built today in the Strip District) was brick, because that's what's been here,” said Becky Rodgers, executive director of the nonprofit Neighbors in the Strip, citing the dark red brick exterior of the 7-year-old Hampton Inn & Suites on Smallman Street, which resembles neighboring buildings.

 

Galluzzo said each of his neighborhood's three sections — Upper, Middle and Lower Lawrenceville — established community plans that lay out their distinct visions for development and a process by which developers can inform residents of their plans long before they reach the Planning Commission or City Council for a vote.

 

Developers are not required to adhere to those plans, but Galluzzo said, “Developers can have a pinch point now or a pinch point later. The developers we deal with tend to find it's much easier to have a conversation with neighbors prior” to seeking city approvals.

 

He said developers of the 45-unit Doughboy Square Apartments, which recently opened on Butler Street, closely followed the Lower Lawrenceville community plan and closely worked with residents. As a result, he said, “it was a seamless project. The pitchforks never came out.”

 

Working to strike a balance between economic growth and maintaining a neighborhood's historic character is a great problem to have, said South Side-based architect Peter Margittai, past president of the nonprofit Preservation Pittsburgh.

 

“The other scenario is that no one is developing anything, and you're not able to attract people or investors,” Margittai said.

 

Margittai was among those who criticized Buncher Co. plans to demolish a third of the historic Produce Terminal to make way for more than $400 million in riverfront development in the Strip. The city ultimately terminated its option agreement with Buncher on the Produce Terminal and is negotiating with two developers on alternative redevelopment plans that don't include demolishing any of the building.

 

He believes new large-scale developments can become a part of their surrounding neighborhoods, even if all their buildings are not made to look like the existing ones around them. Citing SouthSide Works as an example, Margittai said the $300 million complex opened opportunities along the Monongahela River, tied into the existing street grid and is accessible for pedestrians throughout the South Side.

 

“In 20, 40 or 100 years, you won't even know where that development began and the rest of the South Side ended. I think that's the goal,” Margittai said.