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Steelers There has been development near the new stadiums, but no one is sure what will happen between them

Wednesday, August 01, 2001

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The prime North Shore area that's been targeted for development stretches from Heinz Field and the Carnegie Science Center on the west to PNC Park and a new city parking garage on the east.

Projects are beginning to take shape on the eastern and western edges of this prime 25-acre riverfront site, but -- at least for now -- the vast center of the site will remain newly paved parking lots.

On the west, the science center has just opened up a new facility called UPMC SportsWorks. It consists of several dozen interactive, sports-oriented exhibits inside the former Miller Printing Co. building. The exterior is painted a bright blue.

SportsWorks, which opened three weeks ago, is "our contribution to the North Shore," said science center Director Seddon Bennington.

But it's only a small part of what's to come for the science center -- a $90 million expansion of the 10-year-old building which is to be designed by one of three world-renowned architects, all from Europe.

By late September, Bennington said, the science center board will choose either Daniel Libeskind of Berlin, Ben van Berkel of Amsterdam or Jean Nouvel of Paris to design the expansion, which is expected to open in 2005 or 2006.

The science center is currently dwarfed by its immediate neighbor, Heinz Field. The huge stadium doesn't have much activity going on at street level, but on its eastern side it does have the Coca-Cola Great Hall, a hall of fame marking famous plays and players in Steeler history. It also has tributes to Pittsburgh Panthers football history.

It will be open to the public on non-game days at least six months of the year daily, roughly from May through October, said team Vice President Art Rooney II.

Entry will be free on game days to fans with tickets, but there will be a separate admission charge on non-game days. Because the Great Hall has wire-mesh (rather than solid) walls and is open to the cold and rain, it will be closed in cold or inclement weather.

"It'll be a fun place to be, both on game days and nongame days," Rooney said.

Running along the eastern side of Heinz Field is a new street called Art Rooney Avenue, named for the Steelers' founder and grandfather of Art Rooney II. On Rooney Avenue, just across from the Great Hall, is an unpaved lot that the Steelers foresee as the site for an outdoor amphitheater, which will have a stage and seating for as many as 5,000 people.

The stage would face west, toward Heinz Field and the river, to lessen the spillover effect of the sound as much as possible. Rooney said the Steelers want to work on the project with SFX Entertainment, which currently operates the IC Light Amphitheater across the river at Station Square.

Rooney estimated the amphitheater cost at between $5 million and $7 million, and said there would be no public funding. The sale of naming rights and other sponsorship deals would help pay for it.

He said he'd like to see the new amphitheater in operation by next summer. Approval by the city Planning Commission is still needed. That agency is expected to discuss the project this fall, Rooney said.

Other projects are springing up on the eastern side of the North Shore development area.

Two weeks ago Alcoa broke ground for a new six-story office building on East General Robinson Street, half a block east of PNC Park. Alcoa will occupy the top three floors for its Business Services Center, offices that have been located in Allegheny Center.

The $30 million building is to open in early 2003, with a retail arcade on the first floor containing shops and restaurants.

Just across the street from the office building is a new, 925-space parking garage owned by the Sports & Exhibition Authority, a city-county agency that owns both PNC Park and Heinz Field.

The garage, which just opened two months ago, is about 50 percent to 60 percent full, said Merrill Stabile of Alco Parking Co., which operates it. It can provide some parking for tenants of the new Alcoa building, which is being built on what had been a surface parking lot.

Also regarding the garage, plans are underway for three or four theme restaurants or taverns on the ground floor. Working for the authority to find tenants for that space is local real estate consultant Keefe Ellis.

"There's been a lot of interest in that retail space," he said. "We're dealing now with a group that would put three or four entertainment or restaurant venues on the first floor. The ceiling in that space is 24 feet high, so they would probably build a mezzanine level."

There has been one setback in PNC Park-related development, however. Hi-Tops, a sports bar chain based in Chicago, had planned to open in April or May on Federal Street, just across from the baseball park.

But Mike Canace, owner of Hi-Tops, said recently that due to undisclosed renovation problems, he won't be open until next March, for the college basketball "March Madness" tournament.

He said he regretted missing the large crowds that have been going to PNC Park, but hoped to catch those fans starting in April.

"PNC Park looks great, but we lost the momentum of the baseball season," he said, declining to specify what problems have kept him from opening.

Another construction project that may be underway by next spring or summer is the Diamond Pavilion, a four-story office building planned for the corner of Federal and General Robinson, just north of PNC Park.

That project is being done by a joint partnership of Stabile and Walnut Capital Partners of Shadyside. Stabile said they have "one or two major prospects" to be the anchor tenant in the building, which will have retail shops and restaurants on the ground floor.

"We aren't going to build something that isn't at least 50 percent pre-leased," he said. Once a lease is signed for a major tenant, financing can be arranged and construction would start six to nine months later.

Stabile also said he'd like to see the current 90-foot height limit raised for new buildings erected near the waterfront, such as office buildings or a new hotel. Such a study about height limits and appropriate types of developments is now being done by the city Planning Commission.

Stabile said that by building higher buildings along North Shore Drive, it would hide the existing surface parking lots from view. Yet having nearby parking is important in the competition for office tenants with suburban office parks, which offer plentiful surface parking.

By allowing buildings near the riverfront to be as high as 15 stories, he said, it also will soften the visual effect that now exists with Heinz Field, which is so much larger than any structure near it.

No one is sure yet what types of development will be built on the open space between the two stadiums, land that will, for a while, be used for surface parking.

City officials are optimistic that economic development projects will follow construction of the new stadiums, which didn't happen in the early 1970s after Three Rivers Stadium opened.

They said that the new streets on the North Shore -- the extension of General Robinson, the reconfiguration of North Shore Drive and construction of Art Rooney Avenue next to Heinz Field -- have divided the 25 acres into smaller, more manageable parcels.

Construction of the new riverfront park between the stadiums and the river is another amenity that should attract developers, officials said.

And the fact there are two stadiums, on each side of the open parcel, should lead to additional spinoff development, they said.

That development effort is being headed by John Pelusi, a onetime player on Pitt's 1976 national championship football team who now is a real estate expert for a consulting firm called Holliday Fenoglio Fowler.

He's been hired by the Steelers, Pirates and the Sports & Exhibition Authority to do a regional and national search for development companies who are interested in and capable of making something happen on the prime riverfront site.

He also has a list of firms that have done similar types of projects. "We will sit down with the teams soon and go over the list of people who gave us their qualifications" for such development work.

The "next level" in the process, he said, is to evaluate the types of projects -- office buildings, restaurants, sports bars, video game facilities -- would best fit in. That may be completed in a month.

Art Rooney is interested in a project Sony has done in San Francisco -- a four-story building offering a variety of entertainment options, including a 10-screen movie theater, a video game hall, with shops and restaurants and retail stores.

The building is near San Francisco's convention center, but hasn't been replicated yet in any other city. He'd like to see one here.

"It's fantastic," he said of the Sony project. "I think the concept is right [for the North Shore.] I think that kind of thing can work here."

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