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Differences of opinion

Monday, February 14, 2000

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

Soon, City Council will be asked to make the most important planning decision for Downtown Pittsburgh since Renaissance I.

    Shopping in the shadows of history


In the 1950s, scores of commercial loft buildings, offices and warehouses were knocked down and replaced with Point State Park and Gateway Center.

Half a century later, Mayor Murphy's Market Place at Fifth and Forbes, developed by Chicago-based Urban Retail Properties, promises to transform Downtown's traditional retail core into an 18-hour city of upscale shops, restaurants and movie theaters.

The $480.5 million project would raze 68 buildings and save, if structurally feasible, 13 historic facades. They would be incorporated into new construction, predominantly national chain stores and restaurants.

Many support the mayor's project, sometimes conditionally.

But to the city's two preservation groups and other critics, it is an inappropriate, overreaching plan that will destroy much of the character of Downtown and replace it with a "a mall without walls."

Murphy hopes to attract stores that would be one-of-a-kind in the region, like FAO Schwarz and Tiffany's, but proposed leasing plans indicate the project also would have shops already in the Pittsburgh area, such as Banana Republic, Ann Taylor and Eddie Bauer.

Frustrated by their lack of influence on the mayor's plan, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and Preservation Pittsburgh came up with a different idea, one that saves more buildings, adds three residential buildings and fills in Market Square with a market house.

Preservationists continue to meet with Urban Retail in the hope of working out a compromise, but if that fails, Landmarks President Arthur Ziegler wants to open the process to other developers.

And just when you thought there were only two alternatives, along comes Plan C, an incremental approach modeled on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Main Street program.

This plan, by the Golden Triangle Community Development Corp., a new group of about 50 merchants and property owners, uses preservation and marketing strategies to promote business development.

While that approach has gradually transformed the South Side business district over the past 15 years, many believe it's imprudent to wait that long for significant change Downtown.

'Critical mass'

  At-A-Glance Comparison

Some important similarities:

Both plans would take control of properties, if necessary through eminent domain.

Both support the need for an immediate "critical mass" of new shops and restaurants under unified management.

Both provide space for a new department store and movie theater.

Both provide additional parking.

Both provide "anchors" at the east and west ends of Fifth and Forbes.

Both treat Fifth Avenue as a traditional shopping street and Forbes Avenue as a restaurant/entertainment street.

Some important differences:

Urban Retail's plan is fully financed; the preservationists' plan is not.

Urban Retail's plan leaves Market Square's plaza intact; the preservationists' plan suggests a new market house and upstairs "public amenity" there.

Urban Retail's plan is driven by the need for "a critical mass" of shops and parking; the preservationists' plan is driven by the desire to preserve the block bounded by Market, Fifth, Wood and Forbes and to include housing.

Urban Retail's plan demolishes 68 buildings and saves 13 facades; the preservationists' plan demolishes 38 buildings and saves eight facades.

Urban Retail's plan provides for housing developers to build perhaps 270 residential units in the air rights above some of the shops; the preservationists' plan calls for about 400 apartments in two new residential towers and about 275 loft apartments in the upper floors of existing buildings.

Urban Retail's new buildings use traditional Main Street styles and building materials; the architecture in the preservationists' plan is contemporary. In a bit of irony, Urban Retail wants to knock down buildings and build new ones that look old; the preservationists want their new buildings to be highly sculptural and angular, with modern glass facades.

Urban Retail's plan allows PNC to build offices above some Fifth Avenue shops; the preservationists' plan does not provide for new PNC offices.

Urban Retail's plan closes Graeme Street and McMasters Way off Market Square and turns them into service alleys; the preservationists' plan does not.

--By Patricia Lowry


Because the preservationists' plan was a reaction to the mayor's, the plans have many similarities. They also have some important differences.

From the beginning, Murphy wanted to retain the traditional street grid rather than build an enclosed mall, as some cities have done in their downtowns. Preservationists' concerns about losing historic buildings and facades also have had an impact.

An even greater force shaping the plan is Urban Retail's need for "critical mass," a big enough area of shops to attract customers. So instead of the original block the city asked Urban Retail to look at, bounded by Fifth, Wood, Forbes and McMasters Way, the project grew to something about four times larger.

"We said to the [Urban Redevelopment Authority], 'You're missing a tremendous opportunity. You have a chance to have a terrific regional retail and entertainment draw,' " said Bob Lenke, vice president of Urban Retail Properties. "We said we wouldn't be interested in doing a single block."

The increased scale also increased the need for parking -- 1,000 new spaces in two underground garages.

Designed by architect Richard Heapes , whose Street-Works firm in Alexandria, Va., is a partner in the project, Market Place at Fifth and Forbes would have an urban look, with individual storefronts. But its retail plan is based on the suburban mall model of anchors..

The existing department stores -- Kaufmann's, Saks Fifth Avenue and soon Lord & Taylor -- would anchor the eastern end, with the cinemas or a Nordstrom store holding down the western end near Market Square. One-and-a-half sides of Market Square would be demolished and rebuilt to house shops and restaurants, but the square would remain open.

In its prospectus, Urban Retail envisions Fifth Avenue as an "elegant retail street" oftrees and shops two to four stories tall.

Along entertainment-oriented Forbes Avenue, there would be more shops, but also restaurants and the entrance to a cinema with 15 to 18 screens.

To achieve all this, Urban Retail plans to demolish 68 buildings, which the firm says cannot support new retail because they are too narrow, have varying floor-to-floor heights and can't meet service and access requirements. Urban Retail also says it must have flexibility in locating tenants, and it needs underground parking on two blocks.

Thirteen historic facades would be retained and so well integrated with the new buildings that, Heapes has said, it would be hard to tell the old from the new.

That reflects Murphy and Heapes' desire to create a place that looks and feels like a traditional, low-rise, early 20th-century commercial street, using traditional facade materials.

"There's a desire to have whatever's done here have a Pittsburgh character and flavor to it," Lenke said.

As many as six Pittsburgh architects would design some of the new buildings, with the designs approved by the city's Historic Review Commission.

Heapes worked with architect Michael Eversmeyer, the city's former preservation planner who is now with Perkins Eastman Architects, to identify facades for retention.

They are in a range of historical styles, including Italianate, Victorian Gothic, Classical and Art Deco, scattered among the targeted blocks. The old facades wouldn't be blank, dead faces on the new buildings, but living ones, with active entrances and windows.

Along Fifth Avenue near Liberty, buildings owned by PNC Bank would be demolished, with two historic facades applied to new buildings housing shops. PNC Bank would lease its land there to Urban Retail, retaining the ability to build offices above the new stores.

Urban Retail's street plan creates a walkway between Forbes and Fourth avenues, connecting the development with parking garages and other activity on Fourth. Market Street, closed to cars in an earlier Urban Retail plan, is narrowed by building wider sidewalks lined with trees, but kept open to traffic.

But two of Downtown's shortest, narrowest, most intimate streets, now lined with historic buildings -- Graeme Street and McMasters Way off Market Square -- would be closed and converted to service alleys for trucks to supply businesses. While Graeme would have a single sidewalk, McMasters would be closed to cars and people alike.

An alternative plan

When the Market Place project was in its early planning stage, the city's two preservation groups drew up a map for the mayor, indicating which buildings and facades should be saved and which could be demolished. While some of their suggestions were adopted, most were not.

When the preservationists weren't invited back to the table, they called New York architect Stanton Eckstut and said, in effect, make a new plan, Stan.

The plan that Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn produced for Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and Preservation Pittsburgh takes control of more property than Urban Retail's plan, to accommodate one of three new residential buildings with street-level retail.

In the end, it does what preservationists wanted -- it saves more buildings -- but Eckstut rankles when his plan is called "the preservation plan," citing its aggressive development posture.

Eckstut's plan was presented to City Council Feb. 2 and outlined in 51 pages of text, perspective drawings and a three-dimensional model. Its site plan is more detailed than the one Urban Retail has released, right down to the number of parking spaces and the interior layouts of the cinemas and apartment buildings.

Eckstut puts a three-story Nordstrom in the block bounded by Fifth, Forbes, Wood and Smithfield and locates the cinemas on a fourth level, above the store, as his firm did in Indianapolis.

The block between Wood and Market streets contains the most significant group of historic buildings. It would be preserved, with the buildings housing a mixture of large and small shops with apartments above.

The preservation of this block, which Urban Retail's plan demolishes, is one of the biggest physical differences between the two plans. Eckstut challenges Urban Retail's belief that the older buildings can't be recycled with new retail.

"You can go into any city and the big stores are all going into old buildings," he said.

Another key difference is the treatment of Market Square, which Eckstut fills in with a building housing restaurants and market stalls on the first floor and public space -- perhaps an ice-skating rink -- above.

The city is concerned that a market there would take business away from an increasingly fragile Strip District, where food shops already are giving way to other uses as real estate values rise. Eckstut thinks enough new people will be attracted to Fifth and Forbes that competition won't be a problem.

"You want a bigger market share; you don't want to steal from each other," he said.

Eckstut positions Market Square as the anchor for the western end of the development, drawing people from Smithfield and Grant streets. He believes PPG Plaza can and should take over Market Square's positive public uses, pointing to how privately owned Rockefeller Center has become New York City's unofficial town square.

Downtown living

Another important difference between the two plans is that while Urban Retail's doesn't include housing, Eckstut's puts 675 new housing units Downtown -- 400 in new construction and 275 in restored buildings. One of the three new apartment buildings could be a small hotel; all three buildings would house street-level retail along Forbes Avenue.

Eckstut's street plan retains Graeme and Market streets and McMasters Way, where the historic buildings would hold small-scale retail. Where Urban Retail's plan makes a pedestrian connection between Forbes and Fourth avenues, Eckstut's plan creates a new street to allow cars as well as pedestrians access to the Fourth Avenue garages.

The plan also carries on traditional pedestrian traffic patterns by retaining midblock access between Fifth and Forbes avenues via arcades. People who used Donahoe's and now use the CVS store to travel between the two streets, for example, would still be able to do so.

An important aesthetic difference between the two plans is that Eckstut believes the new buildings should be strikingly contemporary rather than historic in appearance; the firm's drawings and model show highly sculptural, angular, glass-curtain-wall buildings as new construction. If the city chooses to adopt both Eckstut's plan and his architecture, the historic facades saved would float in front of the new buildings as salvaged remnants.

Like Urban Retail's plan, the preservationists' plan endorses the idea of gaining control of the properties, perhaps through eminent domain, and developing a coordinated merchandising effort. But the preservationists propose that building owners who do not wish to sell instead be given the opportunity of an ownership share in the project.

Cost and concessions

Another difference between the two plans is cost. The preservationists' plan is estimated at $564.4 million, including the three residential towers and the acquisition of additional property for one of them at Forbes and Smithfield. Without the new residential buildings, the preservationists' plan costs $471.6 million, about the same as the mayor's, which is estimated at $480.5 million.

Urban Retail has suggested two possible concessions to the preservationists.

Urban Retail's plan does not include housing, but many Pittsburghers have expressed the belief that housing should be part of any Fifth and Forbes project, to make the streets safer and provide a built-in clientele for the new shops. Urban Retail is talking with two residential developers about building apartments above some of the shops, perhaps a total of about 270 units.

"We believe it will be a success without new residential," Urban Retail's Lenke said, "but there's a groundswell desire to have new housing."

Urban Retail also has indicated its willingness to incorporate mid-block arcades for pedestrians.

With so much money on the table and many expressing the desire to see something happen soon, there may be little appetite for the third alternative -- the Main Street approach that preserves and restores buildings and works to upgrade existing businesses and attract new ones.

The Golden Triangle Community Development Corp. has hired Squirrel Hill architect Terry Necciai, who directed Main Street revitalization programs in Charleroi and Somerset.

"Historic preservation can be the most effective and often least expensive way to match locations with retail successes," Necciai said.Even if the Main Street approach isn't adopted, its marketing and preservation strategies could be employed beyond Fifth and Forbes.

In the coming weeks, Pittsburgh must decide which of the three plans is most appropriate and sustainable in the long run, or, more likely, what sort of compromise to fashion.

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