Pittsburgh Playhouse project approved over objections of preservationists
February 10, 2015 10:36 PM
Point Park University
This architect's rendering of the Pittsburgh Playhouse complex that will be built Downtown shows an aerial view of the colonnade.
The Saks Fifth Avenue store at Smithfield Street and Oliver Avenue Downtown.
By Mark Belko / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Pittsburgh Playhouse is about to take center stage in Downtown.
City planning commission members unanimously approved plans Tuesday for construction of the new playhouse complex on Forbes Avenue in Downtown, clearing the way for its move from Oakland.
Approval came over the objections of preservationists who urged the commission to keep in place three Forbes Avenue building facades that will be deconstructed, relocated and integrated into the new complex under the plans advanced by Point Park University.
With today’s decision, Point Park intends to start construction in March with the demolition of three Forbes buildings and hopes to have the new complex ready for audiences in July 2017.
The $53 million project will feature a 550-seat main theater, a 200-seat adaptive theater with doors that will open to a plaza for outdoor performances, a 100-seat black box theater and supporting facilities, including prop and costume shops.
Point Park intends to take down and relocate the facades at 320, 322 and 330 Forbes to the two-story outdoor plaza and colonnade that will be part of the new complex. One of the facades will serve as a second level entrance to the now-vacant 1903-built Stock Exchange Building on Fourth Avenue, which is being refurbished and reused as part of the playhouse construction.
Point Park has argued that the facades were not strong enough to support the playhouse infrastructure to be built behind them and would have added to the project cost.
In voting in favor of the project, Christine Mondor, city planning commission chairwoman, said the benefits it provided outweighed the deconstruction and relocation of the facades.
Matthew Falcone, president of Preservation Pittsburgh, afterward called the commission’s approval “unfortunate and disappointing.” He said the group’s board will meet to weigh its next move.
He and others who spoke at the meeting noted that all three facades were contributing structures in the Fourth Avenue national historic district.
Mr. Falcone said Preservation Pittsburgh also had pitched the idea to Point Park of moving the facades to Fourth to keep them on the street, but to no avail.
“We have to regroup and see what the next steps will be,” Mr. Falcone said.
One option could be nominating the buildings for city historic designations. Preservation Pittsburgh has considered that option in the past, but Mr. Falcone did not specifically mention it Tuesday.
Ellen Kitzerow, former chair of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh, urged the commission to adopt new rules that would automatically refer historic structures targeted for demolition or alteration to the city historic review commission for consideration.
“[The Point Park] plan does not respect the historical value of these structures. They are contributing buildings to the Fourth Avenue national historic district and their facades should remain on the street, not as decoration on the unremarkable building that supplanted them,” she said.
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, the city’s top preservationist organization, supports the playhouse relocation, said Karamagi Rujumba, director of public affairs.
Mr. Rujumba said that Point Park has been a leader in preserving and being “good stewards” of historic structures in the Wood Street corridor.
In reviewing the Forbes structures with the college and consultants, the foundation determined that “some of the facades just could not be saved. They are not functional, and we appreciated their efforts in including them in the redesign of the buildings,” he said.
The playhouse project also won the backing of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. CEO Jeremy Waldrup said the college’s $244 million Academic Village initiative, which has enlarged and improved its campus, has been a catalyst for redevelopment in Downtown. The relocation of the outdated playhouse in Oakland to new facilities on Forbes will continue that, he said.
“Adding 800 theater seats to this area of Downtown will create a renewed vibrancy, especially on nights and weekends to complement the significant investments of PNC Bank and Millcraft Investments,” he said.
The four-story playhouse complex will feature large windows on Forbes so that passers-by can see into the main theater at all times, except during live performances.
Also Tuesday, Millcraft briefed the commission on its plan to build 77 condominium units on top of a 570-space parking garage it will be constructing at the former Saks Fifth Avenue department store site on Smithfield Street in Downtown.
The condo project will consist of a mix of one-, two-, and three-bedroom units along with seven rooftop penthouses. The overall cost of the project, including the garage and street-level retail space, will be $60 million to $70 million. Demolition of the former Saks building is expected to start this spring.
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