Pittsburgh's Bank Tower and former home of Smithfield Cafe both set for new owners

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One is a turn-of-the-20th century skyscraper that once was part of the "Wall Street of Pittsburgh." The other fed countless Downtown office workers and visitors for nearly 80 years before falling victim to foreclosure.

And both now may be in the process of changing hands.

The Bank Tower at the corner of Wood Street and Fourth Avenue and the eight-story building on Smithfield Street that housed the Smithfield Cafe appear to be close to being sold to new investors.

Ryan Sciullo, vice president of investment properties for the CBRE real estate firm, confirmed that the Bank Tower, opened in 1902 as the Peoples Savings Bank Building, is under agreement to be sold to an investment group from the Erie region.

He would not disclose the name of the buyer or the purchase price. The building is owned by BT Property Associates LLC. A closing is expected before the end of the month.

Mr. Sciullo said he believes the Bank Tower acquisition will be the first for the group in the Pittsburgh market. While many of Downtown's older buildings are being converted into residential space, the new owner of the Bank Tower is expected to maintain it as office space.

The 15-story building is about 78 percent occupied, with street-level retail space. Tenants include Point Park University, which owns a number of properties in the vicinity, and the Bohlin Cywinski Jackson architectural firm.

Designed by Alden & Harlow, a prominent architectural firm in the early 1900s, the Bank Tower is considered one of the city's earliest skyscrapers. It features marble in its lobby and a wrought iron, spiral staircase with an oak banister that runs from the top to the bottom of the building.

The real estate is situated along a stretch of Fourth Avenue that was once known as Pittsburgh's Wall Street because of the many financial institutions that occupied space in the area.

A few blocks away, the building that housed the Smithfield Cafe for nearly eight decades before it closed last year also apparently is under agreement to be sold. The buyer has not been identified.

The structure, built in 1895, fell into the hands of Enterprise Bank after the owner, John Petrolias, was unable to find a tenant for its upper floors after the Pittsburgh Technical Institute moved out in 2009. Although Mr. Petrolias tried to hold on to the building, the financial burden without a tenant eventually became too great.

Enterprise Bank purchased the building at a sheriff sale in April, the bank's attorney, Joseph Fidler, said. It paid $1,650 for it, according to Allegheny County's real estate website.

Mr. Fidler declined comment when asked whether the property, assessed at $752,100 by the county, is under agreement to be sold.

Ray Auslander, owner of the Wiener World restaurant across the street from the building, is hoping that a new building owner will be able to bring more people into the corridor.

He said business and pedestrian traffic in the area have declined in the last five years with the closing of the Saks Fifth Avenue department store, Office Depot and the Smithfield Cafe.

"Everybody is either in Market Square or on Liberty Avenue," he said. "We have a perfect venue here with Strawberry Way, and the city does nothing."

Mr. Auslander said he has been trying to convince the powers that be to bring entertainment or other crowd-drawing events into Strawberry Way, an alley that runs from Grant Street to Liberty Avenue, to no avail.

"It seems like they forgot about this end of town for some reason," he said.

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


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