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Some worry that Waterfront developer may bring ho-hum housing to North Shore

Thursday, July 25, 2002

By Dan Fitzpatrick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In May, Oakland developer Ward Olander toured a new white and brown-colored apartment complex at The Waterfront, the highly touted development in the Mon Valley.

The 235 new apartments and townhomes at The Waterfront sit along East Waterfront Drive in Munhall, just across the road from a Dick's Sporting Goods store. The one-bedroom apartments start at $775 per month, while a three-bedroom townhouse overlooking the Monongahela River can cost as much as $2,035 per month. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Olander was not impressed with what he saw.

"It is a disgrace," he said.

Describing the apartment interiors as "watered-down imitation vanilla" and the exterior architecture as lacking "imagination," Olander worries that a similar style will be applied to Pittsburgh's North Shore, where Waterfront developer Continental Real Estate Cos. recently won the assignment to develop 25 acres between PNC Park and Heinz Field. One part of its plan calls for 350 apartments near PNC Park, and Olander wants to prevent the Columbus, Ohio, developer from repeating what it built at The Waterfront. Olander is not the only one to express concerns about the design of Continental's apartments. The developer currently has 1,262 apartment units under construction in Pine, the South Side, the Mon Valley and O'Hara, and, "They are all uniformly dull, uniformly oppressive looking," said Richard Voelker, a former Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission planner who lives on the North Side.

On a recent drive through the O'Hara property, which flanks the Allegheny River, Voelker saw an interior courtyard, rows of identical parking garages and no trees or sidewalks. They "looked like 1950s-style Russian housing" and "instant slums," Voelker said. "That is the best way I can describe it."

Referring to Continental Real Estate Chairman Frank Kass and his desire to redevelop the North Shore, Voelker said, "Don't turn the keys of development over to this guy without requiring him to do something of better quality."

But Kass is the same person who in four years transformed the old USX Homestead Works into a 265-acre collection of shops, restaurants, a movie theater and office buildings, bringing people back to the Mon Valley in droves and providing hope to revenue-starved communities still smarting from the loss of Big Steel. The commercial success of The Waterfront, though, still earns brickbats from local architectural and urban planning experts who acknowledge the project's appeal but see it as a sprawling suburban-style complex that fails to relate well to the riverfront and turns its back on surrounding communities on the other side of the railroad tracks. The Waterfront's 235 apartments, renting from $775 to $2,035 a month, are only the latest part of the project to undergo scrutiny.

The 359-unit Christopher Wren Apartments in Pine is one of four multifamily complexes Continental Real Estate is building in the Pittsburgh area. In all, the company has 1,262 units under construction. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

When asked about the criticisms of his apartment buildings, Kass said: "I am not trying for unanimity. If you design something that everybody in the world loves, it is not going to work. I am not going to be responsible for keeping everybody happy." But Kass also made a clear distinction between the projects at The Waterfront, O'Hara and Pine -- calling them "suburban" apartments made of "sticks and bricks" -- and the 350 apartments he wants to build near PNC Park.

The difference, he said, "is really just night and day."

The suburban apartments, he explained, are a combination of concrete slabs, frames and brick facades with siding. On the North Shore, the materials will be more substantial, mixing steel, stone, glass and brick. Pilings will be drilled into the ground, and a parking garage will sit underneath a building of six or so stories, with retail on the first floor and apartments above. Tenants will enter their apartments from the inside, as opposed to Continental's suburban projects, where most of the units have exterior or breezeway entrances.

"When we get done, those buildings should look like they have been there for a long time," Kass said.

Some observers are reserving judgment. "Most of Continental's experience appears to be suburban development," said Kent Edwards, an architect and partner in Lawrenceville-based McCormick Architects and Designers. "Suburban development does not always translate well to an urban context."

Another skeptic is Lew Botula, an engineer and member of the Building Code Appeals Board in O'Hara, who recently sent Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy a letter asking the city not to move ahead with the North Shore development without "thought, reasoning, deliberation" in order to avoid "repetition of mistakes of the past."

Botula contends that officials in O'Hara "did not fulfill their duties to the residents" when they approved Continental's 398-unit riverfront apartment complex, known as The Docks. The buildings, he said, exceed the township's riverfront zoning requirements, and the complex "looks like some sort of a jail, almost. Now, if this is what's going to happen between our stadiums on the North Side, which is the last development gem possible, this will be a real mistake. I think you have got to put something over there that's attractive."

O'Hara Manager Doug Arndt, in response to Botula, said Continental did request departures from the town's zoning requirements and that council granted them. "With respect to the way the development looks, the township does not regulate aesthetics," Arndt said.

"What might be something you feel is offensive may not be offensive looking to someone else. The township is pleased to have residential development on the property, and we hope the development in the township is successful."

Some observers are worried less about the architecture of Continental's buildings and more about how the new North Shore development will relate to the rest of the neighborhood and the riverfront. On that front, Continental is having success.

"So far they have been very cooperative in listening to what we had to say and being responsive to it," said city planning director Susan Golomb. "They know there is a lot of skepticism out there because of what people have seen at The Waterfront and elsewhere. But these are very qualified developers. I am hoping we are going to get something good."

Several groups, including the Riverlife Task Force and a committee chaired by UDA Architects' Don Carter, have suggested design guidelines for the land between the two stadiums. "It is very important for the city to get it right," Carter said.

Continental appears to be satisfying those guidelines, proposing a grid system that allows for the buildings to face both the river and the rest of the North Shore, while preserving visual connections from the riverfront to North Shore Drive. Continental recently showed the Riverlife Task Force a package of building types and architectural models it hopes to use, and the task force was pleased with what it saw, according to Riverlife director Lisa Schroeder.

The hope is that such planning can help Continental avoid the criticism leveled against the 232-unit Lincoln at the North Shore, a riverfront apartment complex developed by Lincoln Property Co. in the mid-1990s.

The brick-and-stucco complex, near the Ninth Street Bridge, was one of first developments for Murphy on the North Side and filled up immediately, asking rents starting at $1,000 per month. But to some design experts, it epitomizes bad riverfront design.

"I think the give and take is much more there [with Continental] than with Lincoln Property," said American Institute of Architects' Anne Swager, who called the Lincoln project "unimaginative and cheap looking."

But Kevin Keane, senior vice president with Lincoln, said the design of his apartments were the result of months of meetings with city planning officials and the Urban Redevelopment Authority. "When people complain about the design, I kind of feel like Bill Cowher on a Tuesday.

"It is easy to say they either love it or hate it after it is done."

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