North Shore gets boost from new T line

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Last week, Jack Jacobs left his office at First Niagara Bank, Downtown, and jumped on the T for the short ride to the North Shore to eat lunch at Jerome Bettis Grille 36.

It's a restaurant he wouldn't have chosen before the 1.2-mile extension of the Light Rail Transit system to the North Shore opened March 25. But in the last month, he's already made the trip across the Allegheny River a couple of times for lunch.

"I think it creates more options for you," he said.

Mr. Jacobs is one of a countless number of Downtown workers who are taking advantage of the North Shore Connector, the controversial $523.4 million light rail link between Gateway Center and Heinz Field, to eat, park or gamble on the North Shore.

Some North Shore restaurants already are reporting an increase in business since the extension opened. But the biggest change -- hands down -- has been parking, with commuters now filling a West General Robinson Street garage that sat half-empty for most of its six-year existence.

"It's been great," said Merrill Stabile, president of Alco Parking, which manages the garage and a number of surface lots between Heinz Field and PNC Park.

Mr. Stabile estimated the North Shore has added 400 to 500 cars a day since the opening of the link, "and it's still growing and there's room for more growth."

Much of the growth has been at the West General Robinson Street garage, which sits on top of the connector's North Side station. The garage sold out two to three days a week during April and now is 95 to 100 percent occupied on most weekdays, Mr. Stabile said. The authority dropped the garage's daily rate from $8 to $6 to promote usage in conjunction with the connector's opening.

The 1,256-space garage, owned by the city's stadium authority, has been a money loser since its inception. Last year, the garage, with revenues running about $1.1 million annually, was generating less than 60 percent of what it needed to make debt payments. It has since been refinanced.

While Mr. Stabile did not have exact numbers, he said garage revenues have increased "significantly" since the connector opened March 25.

"I'm not saying this solves all of their problems, but it certainly improves the performance of the garage," he said. "It mitigates some of their financial burden."

While the garage has been the biggest beneficiary so far, Mr. Stabile said he also has seen an increase in the number of people buying leases to park in the surface lots near the North Side station.

"I think it's an excellent start," he said. "I anticipated that the commuters' habits wouldn't change right away. In Pittsburgh, it takes people awhile to change their daily routines. But this happened a lot quicker than I expected, and that's a good thing."

Alco, the Steelers, Rivers Casino and the stadium authority are paying for three years of free rides on the connector between the North Shore and Downtown.

The new link also is proving to be a bonus for some restaurants.

Patrick Simbeck, general manager of McFadden's Restaurant & Saloon, said lunch business has jumped about 20 percent on average since the connector opened in March, even without any promotions to lure people to the North Shore from Downtown.

Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse is not open for lunch, but general manager Ken Macieski said the restaurant has seen an increase in happy hour and early dinner traffic recently. Overall, business has been up about 15 to 20 percent, even when the Pirates aren't playing at PNC Park, and Mr. Macieski suspects the connector is the reason.

"We've definitely noticed a pickup, which is phenomenal," he said. "I have to attribute it to that."

At Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery, business was up more than 10 percent in April over March, but general manager Mike Hornick wasn't sure whether that was from the connector or the start of the baseball season.

"I think it's a combination of all of that and the weather. If there's not a lot of activity [on the North Shore] or if it's cold or rainy, people just don't come up this way," he said.

Not everybody has seen a surge in customers.

Craig Carpenter, manager of Rivertowne North Shore, said the restaurant saw a slight jump in business after the connector first opened but that it has since fallen back to where it was before then.

"It just kind of leveled off," he said.

Still, Frank Kass, chairman of Continental Real Estate Companies, which was hired by the Steelers and the Pirates to develop the land between the two stadiums, said, "On balance, everything we've heard about the LRT/subway has been great.

"I think that it has increased traffic and accessibility to the North Shore. I'm fairly certain that it's increased the parking revenue for the [stadium authority], which is very important to all of us. We're pretty excited about it," he said.

For some, however, the new T link brings worry.

Employees at Atria's Restaurant & Tavern at PNC Park near the Roberto Clemente Bridge are concerned about losing foot traffic as a result of the new light rail stop.

The fear is that Pirates fans or visitors to the North Shore will bypass the walk across the bridge, which takes them right past Atria's, for a quick LRT ride to the North Side station on the opposite side of the ballpark.

While the restaurant has not seen any impact on business so far, "We probably will see it in the next quarter of the year," said one supervisor, who would not give his name. "We are concerned that some of the foot traffic that comes in front of the restaurant may or may not come anymore. We're still waiting to see [the impact]."

On the west end of the North Shore, Rivers Casino is within a five-minute walk from the connector's Allegheny Station across from Heinz Field.

While the casino would not say whether it has seen a boost in business since the link opened, general manager Craig Clark said in a statement, "We've heard anecdotally from many guests that they are grateful to have another convenient way to get to Rivers."

Not wanting to leave anything to chance, the casino currently is developing a transit advertising campaign that will appear in and around the connector, spokesman Jack Horner said.

Last week, John Kacinko and Brian Ashley, both employees at Highmark, Downtown, jumped on the connector on a whim to sample the buffet at the casino. It was the first time the two had tried to get to the casino via the T for lunch, and they were interested in seeing how long it would take.

While many thought the connector would help to bolster business on the North Shore, it appears to be having a reverse effect as well.

Last week, Joff Starcher left his office at Equitable Gas on the North Shore to take the connector Downtown for a bite to eat. He said he has done that five to six times since the new link opened.

"It's much easier than walking over the bridge. There are more places to eat [Downtown]. You can get back and forth in an hour," he said.

Likewise, Jeff Gaal, who also works on the North Shore, comes Downtown two to three times a week to eat now that the connector is open.

"There's more of a selection at lunch," he said. "You get tired of the same thing every day on the North Shore."

businessnews

Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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