Lower Fifth Avenue is becoming the Eliza Doolittle of Downtown.
Once a gloomy stretch of boarded up buildings and empty storefronts for the most part, Fifth between Wood and Market streets now boasts a shimmering new office tower and elegantly restored turn-of-the-century buildings, scrubbed and polished to bring out rich architectural detail lost to decades of soot and neglect.
And with the metamorphosis, retail, once the lifeblood of the corridor, could be poised to make a comeback.
In the last six months, two clothing stores and a shoe shop have opened in the stretch between Wood and Market, and a small women's boutique is on the way next month.
Some believe it could be the start of something bigger, a return to the days when Fifth Avenue teemed with stores packed with noontime shoppers.
"I see it becoming a center and a main corridor for retail, entertainment, dining and a gateway into the Cultural District," said Jeffrey Ackerman, executive vice president and managing director of the national capital markets group for CB Richard Ellis.
The retail amounts to the first fruits of four major redevelopments in the corridor:
• The 23-story Three PNC Plaza tower, occupying nearly the entire block, is virtually finished. The Fairmont Pittsburgh hotel opened March 29, joining the Reed Smith LP law firm and PNC Financial Group. Twenty seven condos complete the development, with a top-floor penthouse recently selling for $2.5 million.
• Across the street the Downtown YMCA has moved into the former G.C. Murphy store and several other structures now known as Market Square Place, also home to 46 apartments, with all but one rented.
• The Buhl Building, a blue and cream terra cotta gem, has undergone a $3.3 million rehab, with a restored facade and first floor retail space. Developers also razed two adjoining Market Street structures, adding five floors of office space to the back of Buhl.
The retail resurgence got its start in that corner at Fifth and Market, where the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation restored the former Regal Shoe Co. building and two others.
As part of that $3 million redevelopment, PHLF President Arthur Ziegler Jr. enticed the Heinz Healey's men's store to move from Station Square and the Nettleton Shop of Pittsburgh, a men's shoe store, to move from Oxford Centre. Both opened in their new locations in September.
Last month, Larrimor's clothing store relocated from Grant Street to a former bank lobby in the One PNC building. A popular Downtown hair salon, Izzazu Salon and Spa, also will move into Piatt Place, a converted department store at Fifth and Wood Street, in June. Doncaster on Fifth, a high-end women's clothing boutique, will open in the Piatt Place lobby next month.
Some see it as a start of things to come.
"When you have property owners making a commitment to real estate and bringing in tenants to attract people, you often get a domino effect. Retailers go where people are going to be," said David Glickman, vice president of the retail group at Grubb & Ellis Co. "Over the next two to five years, I expect all or most of that corridor to get redeveloped in some manner."
There's still plenty of work to do.
Developer Millcraft Industries has yet to fill 25,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space at Market Square Place. In addition, developer N&P Properties has several street-level retail spaces to fill in the Buhl Building.
However, Nick Nicholas, a principal in N&P Properties, said he has seen an upsurge of interest in the space now that construction is winding down.
Mr. Nicholas said he has lined up one tenant, probably an eyeglass store, for one Buhl Building retail space. He said he is talking to several people about another spot at Fifth and Market. He also intends to move Prantl's and Mancini's bakeries a short distance from their Market Square location to a storefront next to the Buhl Building.
With the demise of Rosebud Fine Food Market on Seventh Street, Mr. Nicholas would like to transform the Market Square bakery space into a New York style deli and market with fresh meats and produce and take-out food.
With such additions and others, he sees lower Fifth going from a "dumpy, seedy area to an upscale shopping area."
While Millcraft struggled for months to fill the retail space at Market Square Place, interest "definitely has picked up" recently, said Lucas Piatt, executive vice president.
He attributes part of that to improvement in the economy, part to interest generated by the completed projects along Fifth.
"Everything has changed. We knew this year was going to be the banner year for Fifth Avenue," Mr. Piatt said.
Millcraft now is negotiating leases with several groups for retail space on Fifth and in Market Square, including at least one restaurant as well as a "business use." Mr. Piatt said the goal is to have a casual restaurant, a higher end restaurant, and shopping "to really further what's happening on Fifth."
There's also some indication that the upsurge in interest is spreading to a more blighted pocket of Fifth at Wood Street opposite the Piatt Place redevelopment.
Ted Karabinos, a realtor who represents the owner of the former Lerner's of New York store with entrances at 306 Fifth and 440 Wood, said he has fielded inquiries from five different entities with an interest in purchasing the vacant building, which carries a $4.5 million asking price. He said no deals have been reached.
"We've spoken to various interests about the building. Some have been more serious than others," he said.
Mr. Karabinos attributes much of the interest to the completion of Three PNC Plaza and the other developments as well as the renovations taking place in Market Square.
"We're sort of one of the last main corners to be developed. We're kind of sure the market's going to come to us. We think at this point that's why there's been an uptick in activity," he said.
Mike Edwards, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, isn't surprised by the level of interest.
"The change in lower Fifth is pretty dramatic. People see an opportunity," he said.
The retailers who already have made the move to Fifth say they are glad they did so. They noted the concentration of lawyers, bankers, business people and residents in the corridor provides a steady clientele for their merchandise.
Heinz Healey's owner Chas Schaldenbrand said the store is "doing way better" now than it did in Station Square despite ongoing construction outside of its doors. Sales of suits and sports coats are "way up" even though those categories have taken a beating nationwide.
In fact, business has been good enough that Mr. Schaldenbrand is thinking about opening a women's accessory store at another location along lower Fifth.
"We're doing much more business. We're where we want to be," he said.
At Larrimor's, president Tom Michael said he has no regrets about moving to Fifth Avenue after seven decades on Grant Street. He said overall sales increased 8 percent in March compared to the same month in 2009 and that women's clothing sales are "significantly ahead" of last year's pace.
"I'm pleasantly surprised. This has been a good move. This is a good location," he said.
Mr. Ackerman ultimately sees lower Fifth trending to the upscale side.
"It's going to be different. It's not going to be G.C. Murphy. I think it's going to be higher end fashion like Larrimor's and Doncaster and high-end restaurants like Capital Grille and McCormick & Schmick's. It's going to have a much different retail flavor to it," he said.
Mark Belko: email@example.com or 412-263-1262.