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Allegheny Center sheds mall for offices

Wednesday, September 06, 2000

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Allegheny Center Mall on the North Side proved to be a disappointing failure in its two-decade effort to imitate suburban shopping malls.

But things have turned around markedly for the massive concrete and glass structure straddling Federal Street since its owners switched from pushing retail to becoming a sort of inner-city office complex.

Now things are going so well that Allegheny Center Associates, the Los Angeles-based ownership group, plans to enlarge the 35-year-old center with a 240,000 square foot, $24 million expansion. Five additions, four on the roof of the existing two-story mall, received final approval yesterday by the city Planning Commission.

James Jones, one of four partners in Allegheny Center Associates, said a third story, containing about 63,000 square feet of space for National City Bank, will be added to the southeast corner of the fortress-like structure. National City already is a major office tenant of the mall, a carryover from its 1996 takeover of Integra Financial, which housed its data processing, mortgage and consumer finance units there.

Jones said the additional weight shouldn't harm the roof because the mall was designed to hold more than two floors, which sit atop three stories of parking.

National City plans to add about 200 workers to the work force already in the building, Jones said. He declined to give further details, deferring to National City and Murphy administration officials, who plan to talk about the expansion later this week. They couldn't be reached yesterday.

Jones, who hopes to begin construction of the rooftop addition by year-end, said Allegheny Center "has become a very viable office complex."

Planning Commission member Clifford Levine, recalling the mall's gradual decline from the 1960s to the '80s, said it is "wonderful that we finally have clicked on a use that's successful."

The commercial elements now in the mall -- banks, restaurants and a pharmacy -- are "service retail" aimed at serving and assisting office tenants rather than attempting to draw people from outside the complex, Jones said.

A fourth story, also with about 63,000 square feet, probably will be added next year on top of the new southeast corner addition, Jones said. National City will be the likely tenant.

A second third-story addition, totaling 18,000 square feet, also is planned and will be located next to the new National City offices, Jones said. AT&T or Equitable Gas Co., which also have offices in Allegheny Center, will likely use that space.

A fourth rooftop structure of about 27,000 square feet is planned on the northern side of the roof for the telecommunications firm Nextlink Communications, Jones said.

If demand continues to grow, Allegheny Center Associates plans to build a new three-story building next to an existing 14-story tower that contains offices of Allegheny General Hospital and Alcoa, Jones said. That building probably won't be built for at least two years.

One good thing about Allegheny Center is the huge, three-story parking garage beneath the building. It is large enough to provide for parking needs that will be created by the expansion, commission officials said. Jones said the mall also is benefiting from growth just to its south and from interest created by the two stadiums.

Planning Commission Tom Armstrong said he was glad to hear about the mall's success with offices, but asked Jones to try to do more to link the large building with the surrounding community. A frequent criticism over the past 30 years has been that the mall acts as a sort of mammoth dividing wall between North Side neighborhoods. It replaced buildings that had been the commercial center of the old city of Allegheny.

Armstrong said he'd like to see pedestrian walkways or even routes for vehicles to penetrate the mall property -- something to make the southern face of the mall "feel less like a canyon."

Levine added: "We are trying to integrate the building into the community so it isn't a fortress."

Jones said it might be possible to put some stores on the southern side, which faces Downtown. He said the city is studying whether to permit two-way traffic around the mall, instead of the current one-way loop.

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