"The perceptions of living downtown have really changed," says Eric Feder. "Up until a few years ago, people gave me odd looks when I said that I lived downtown. Now they say, 'Oh, that's cool!'"
Feder ventured downtown from a Pittsburgh suburb in 1998, buying one of the First Side lofts. Now he's moving into his second downtown residence, renovating an early 20th century warehouse/industrial building at 412 First Avenue into two floors of commercial space with exposed brick and beams. He'll use the top two floors for his own design—2600 square feet of living space.
"My hope is that downtown will become a 24-hour downtown and it is looking more and more that way," he says, citing the buzz around downtown living. "That's a big change from even five years ago."
Downtown Pittsburgh is known for its dramatic setting, surrounded by three rivers and steep bluffs, a reminder of the city's previous life as a strategic military outpost and industrial commerce hub. These scenic rivers and green hills now serve as the extended playground to downtown, where residents and visitors kayak, boat, hike, bike, rollerblade, run, and fish with a glittering skyline as the immediate backdrop. Gorgeous 19th century buildings mix with skyscrapers to give this cityscape a feel that is both historic and modern. Quickly accessible by foot to North Shore's stadiums, South Side's Station Square and the Strip District, and featuring a State Park at the confluence of its defining three rivers, downtown is uniquely positioned and, with the boom in current development, ready for yet another renaissance.
Across the country, downtowns are enjoying renewed mystique, and Pittsburgh is no exception. Packed with historic architecture, downtown nightlife, world-class culture, and top-notch sports teams, Pittsburgh is attracting record numbers of those searching for the hip urban lifestyle with a perfect condo or loft. While two out of three Pittsburgh families still choose the suburbs, a growing niche seek city living, particularly young professionals and empty-nesters. Don Carter, principal of Urban Design Associates, works, lives and plays downtown. "People want to live in a great place and that's downtown," he says. "Pittsburgh's downtown is very vibrant - cosmopolitan, actually."
The Boom in Building
One thing is for sure: the downtown residential community is in a period of unprecedented growth. Converted industrial buildings, new construction hi-rises, and the re-use of vacant property all add up to diverse and attractive opportunities for downtown dwellers. Established buildings such as the Gateway Towers, Chatham Towers, and the Pennsylvanian are making room for the new construction of 151 First Side, the Encore on 7th, and Piatt Place. Three PNC Plaza, to be complete in 2008, will present yet another mix of living, retail, and commercial space that will serve residents, the general public, and the business sector alike.
The biggest project in downtown history, however, is the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's RiverParc on Eighth St. fronting the Allegheny River.
The $460 million project is the first master-planned, green, mixed-use development in the country. When complete in 2009, it will feature 700 residential units--townhouses, condos and lofts--along with 159,000 square feet of retail and a four-star hotel.
Two New Offerings
Combining service and convenience with good design and green space is a win for urban residents. Piatt Place's luxury condos will come complete with a first-floor European-style grocery, upscale retail and a steakhouse. With excellent views of the city, Piatt Place condos will circle the roofline and offer backyard access to a peaceful interior lawn and outdoor terraces. Hardwood floors, granite countertops, and ten-foot ceilings are complemented by concierge service, a door attendant and indoor parking. Buyers are responding: 10 out of 65 units have sold since sales began last month.
The 61-unit Carlyle, already one-third sold and a year from completion, makes re-use of a 21-story stately bank building on Wood Street. Heather Miller, real estate representative, says living downtown appeals to buyers across the board, from the suburban empty nesters to a twenty-something downtown attorney and a couple moving back from New York. What sells these high end condos, says Miller, is "the convenience – no commute and excellent services." Part of that is Pittsburgh's walkability. Everything is within a short jaunt – theater and sports events, daily conveniences, public transportation, the river, and the business district. If you live downtown and work downtown, your commute is a matter of blocks.
Holly Brubach, creative director of Birks and former dancer, Styles editor of the New York Times and writer for Vogue, created a buzz when she recently bought the stunning Granite Building next to the Duquesne Club. "I'm the accidental developer," she says with a laugh. She fell in love with the historic landmark and decided the only way she could live there would be to convert it into five or six full-floor condos. The 3000 square-foot units, designed by Dutch MacDonald and Jeffrey King of EDGE studio, are new on the market, priced at around $700,000 for the shell and $900,000 for the build-out. Each floor features 24 windows and high ceilings, part of the "luxury of light and space" that Brubach, a native Pittsburgher who left for New York at the age of 17, demands in her own dwelling.
As a former resident of New York, Paris and Milan, Brubach loves the scale of Pittsburgh and what it has to offer, from the convenience in getting around to the architecture and diverse cultural offerings.
Who's on First (Avenue)
So besides style mavens such as Brubach, who else is living downtown? PUMP, the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project, crunched the numbers which show that the majority of downtown residents are 24-44 years of age. It looks like the trend will continue as evidenced by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership's popular annual Walk and Dine: a Downtown living tour. The event quickly sold out to 300, with 200 on a waiting list. PUMP saw the opportunity and launched the Pittsburgh Pads series--a great idea, says Patty Burk of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. "It allowed 200 additional young-thinking people to socialize in a downtown property and get a feel for what it might be like to have a downtown lifestyle."
Renters have a number of options, from rehabbed industrial lofts to new construction, from $1 to $1.60 a square foot and up. Those looking to buy can expect pricing from the low 200s to more than a million dollars, some with amazing views. You can find good deals in some of the older buildings in the low 100s. The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership has up-to-the-minute information about downtown living and an apartment search engine at www.PGHLiving.com/. And, PittsburghMoves is also an online database of available properties.
When Eve Picker, architect-turned-developer, pioneered Pittsburgh loft development in the mid 90s, one lender told her, "Don't be ridiculous – this isn't New York." She persisted, and has been turning derelict buildings into lofts ever since – Liberty Lofts, the Bruno Building, and 930 Penn Avenue, to name a few. Ranging from 1190 square feet to more than 1600 square feet, the lofts feature open plans with hardwood floors, immense windows, tall ceilings, balconies and views that are knockout. Picker's development at 947 Liberty Avenue, a sleek, modern in-fill designed by EDGE studio, was featured in Dwell Magazine.
Other developers followed--the 117-unit Penn Garrison and 900 Penn Apartments-- and today, downtown is positioned as a highly desireable place to live – an unlikely thought a decade ago when downtown used to close down when the workforce drove back to the suburbs.
I Love the Night life
For a night out, the only problem is choosing from among the many things to do. Residents can step out and prime their palates at one of the numerous award-winning downtown restaurants. Then, enjoy the opera, ballet, symphony or theater—or skip across the bridge to cheer on the Pirates or a night game of the world-champion Steelers. Or perhaps a cup of coffee and the latest foreign film. Uptown, Mellon Arena offers a full slate of events, from Penguins games to concerts. Once a quarter, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's Gallery Crawl enlivens the scene, when the arts community throws open its doors for a multi-venue art party to the extreme which always packs them in. If you live downtown, this is all in your backyard.
For Broadway shows, plays and concerts, the Cultural District is dense with theaters and cabarets, from Heinz Hall, Benedum and the Byham to the O'Reilly Theater and Cabaret.
Day to Day
Pittsburgh has a sizeable student population. It's home to the exceptional High School Center for the Arts and Performing Arts (CAPA), a high school in a striking new building facing the Allegheny River next to the impressive new David L. Lawrence Convention Center. And it's home to Point Park University, the Arts Institute of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Culinaray Institute and other schools, including Duquesne University in nearby Uptown.
To make downtown living easy, conveniences are plentiful with liquor stores, shoe repair, drug stores, drycleaners, the library, and other basic needs within a five - ten minute walk.
Shopping for fresh local produce is a treat at the seasonal Market Square Farmers Market on Thursdays and on Fridays at the City-County Building. The famous and fabulous Strip District markets are only a mile or two away. Although Downtown lacks a grocer store at present, the gourmet grocer planned for Piatt Place will add another, very welcome dimension to urban living. As more residents move in, more amenities are expected to follow.
Living in an urban epicenter isn't all bricks and mortar. National Geographic recently named Pittsburgh as one of the 31 outdoor adventure cities. Need help planning a great outing? Non-profit Venture Outdoors is the trend-setter, organizing urban hikes, camping, rock climbing and even downtown lunchtime fishing in Point State Park.
It's not unusual to see boats, jet-skis or bright yellow kayaks jockeying for position among barges on any one of Pittsburgh's three rivers. Miles and miles of biking, rollerblading or running along riverfront trails can't be beat. Downtowners enjoy the tranquility of Point State Park along with the beautiful flowering parklets and plazas with cascading water that dot both Uptown and the Cultural District. From Mellon Square to Katz Plaza, to the new Water Trail at the Rafael Vinoly-designed convention center, great outdoor spaces are found throughout.
For indoor recreation such as swimming, yoga, or racquetball, there is no shortage of downtown health clubs. The YMCA, YWCA, Bally Sports Club, and the Downtown Athletic Club offer convenient ways to stay fit. And to keep looking good, try any of the health and beauty spas such as Spa Uptown, About U! Salon and Spa; the Spa at Galleria (located in the Omni William Penn hotel) and the Golden Spoon Spa (located in the Doubletree Hotel). For the influential types, there are members-only clubs such as the Rivers Club and the long-standing Duquesne Club in its beautiful old building.
Living downtown means you are surrounded by great architecture with remarkable buildings such as the Allegheny Courthouse, designed by H.H.Richardson, historic churches and splendid 19th Century office buildings. They represent the foundation upon which all of Downtown has been built, a historic heritage to treasure.
For more info about Downtown visit the PopCity:
- Visiting Guide
- Investing Guide
Directions to Downtown
From the North:
Take 79 South and keep left to take I-279 South via Exit 72 toward Pittsburgh. Merge onto I-579 South via Exit 8A toward Veterans Bridge. Take the 7th Ave/6th Ave Exit and take the ramp toward 6th Ave. Merge onto Bigelow Blvd and turn right onto 6th Ave. Arrive Downtown.
From the East:
Take 376 West and take the Grant St exit, Exit 1C on the left. Turn slight right onto Grant St, and then turn left onto 6th Ave. Arrive Downtown.
From the South:
Take PA-51 North and take the ramp toward I-579/Downtown/South Side. Turn right onto W Liberty Ave and go slight right onto Liberty Tunnels. Liberty Tunnels becomes Liberty Bridge. Stay straight to go onto Crosstown Blvd. Turn slight left to take the ramp toward 6th Ave/Forbes. Turn left onto Forbes, and then right onto 6th Ave. Arrive Downtown.
From the West:
Take I-279 North toward Pittsburgh and take the Blvd of Allies/Liberty Ave exit, Exit 6B toward Mellon Arena. Take the Liberty Ave ramp toward Civic Arena and stay straight to go onto Liberty Ave. Turn slight right onto 6th Ave. Arrive Downtown.
Jen Saffron is a writer who lives on Pittsburgh's Northside. She also wrote the Visitor's Guide to Downtown and the Business and Investment Guide to Downtown.
Photos:James Simon working on statues at 947 LibertyEric Feder on First Avenue2006 Great Race in DowntownView from Gateway TowersThe Carlyle
Granite BuildingPatty Burk of Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership
947 Liberty Avenue
Harris Theatre (Pittsburgh Filmmakers)
CAPA high school for the performing arts
Water trail under the convention center
H.H. Richardson's Allegheny Jail and Courthouse
All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene
except James Simon copyright © John Norton
and 947 Liberty copyright © Ed Massery