Top of the triangle: UPMC getting ready to put its name on U.S. Steel Tower

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It went up in 1970 as a symbol of Pittsburgh's industrial power, sprung from the vestiges of Andrew Carnegie's 19th-century steel empire and held together by rust-colored columns produced in Homestead.

U.S. Steel Corp. is still the largest tenant in the 64-story U.S. Steel Tower, but next weekend a new economic power intends to put its mark atop this symbol of Pittsburgh industry -- and in so doing, cap a shift three and half decades in the making. If the weather holds and the Penguins can free up space in the Mellon Arena parking lot, the 48,000-person University of Pittsburgh Medical Center will finally be able to attach its gold-and-white "UPMC" logo to all three sides of the triangular structure, giving the region's largest employer visibility for miles around.

The sign is costing the nonprofit UPMC $750,000, according to a document submitted last year to the city planning commission, and getting it up requires the use of a Sikorsky helicopter equipped with 100-foot-long cable lead lines. With the arena as a launch point, the copter will hoist the 12 letters, each weighing 2,200 to 3,350 pounds and standing 20 feet tall, until workers suspended over the building's edge can bolt them into place. Several weeks after that, UPMC plans to illuminate the logo.

The skyline move underscores a larger transformation. When the U.S. Steel Tower was built, manufacturing accounted for 24.2 percent of Pittsburgh-area employment, and health care 6.5 percent. Three and half decades later, the mill that produced the "Corten" steel for U.S. Steel Tower no longer exists, and health care is the region's dominant economic force, accounting for 15.5 percent of the workforce (manufacturing is 8.6 percent). Only Boston, with 16.5 percent, has a higher percentage of medical positions.

When UPMC agreed last year to move its headquarters from Oakland and fill five floors at U.S. Steel Tower, it had this larger metamorphosis in mind. A 20-foot-tall sign atop the region's tallest man-made structure was a fitting way to highlight UPMC's contributions to the Pittsburgh area, where it runs 20 hospitals, and "tangible evidence of Pittsburgh's transformation into an international center of medicine, technology and education," it said last year in a statement.

UPMC is paying for the design, fabrication, erection and maintenance of the sign, but it declined to discuss the $750,000 figure it submitted to the planning commission last year. UPMC, which earned $618 million last year on $6.8 billion in revenue, also has not been willing to discuss how much it paid to renovate 186,000 square feet at U.S. Steel Tower, other than the $175,000 spent on more than 20 display monitors (including a 103-inch model and six others set inside its 62nd floor boardroom for presentations). But UPMC has emphasized that its new headquarters space is comparable to what other large corporations have Downtown and that its executive offices are actually smaller, on average, while rank-and-file spaces are bigger than what can be found elsewhere.

As for the sign, designer Bill Kolano said the nonprofit is "really trying to do everything right" despite "people attacking them" on the sign issue, noting that it choose colors (bronze gold and off white) matching the building's rust color and decided to position its letters "flush left" instead of center. A regulator will automatically adjust the light level throughout the year depending on the weather and time of day. The sign is about half the size allowed under city zoning laws.

"They do not want it to be too bright; they don't want it too be too dim," said Mr. Kolano, of East Liberty-based Kolano Design. "They just want to be an integral part of the Pittsburgh skyline and an appropriate addition."

Planning commission member Barbara Ernsberger does not see it that way. "I just thought it was an unnecessary advertisement," said Ms. Ernsberger, who is a lawyer and voted against the sign twice. "They told us it cost $750,000 to erect it, which I thought was an unreasonable expense for a nonprofit to make."

U.S. Steel, she said, helped "us fight World War II," giving this building a historic value. The commission's approval of the UPMC sign "downplayed the significance of the building and our intrinsic history."

The deliberations allowing the sign to move forward were the subject of controversy. First the Planning Commission on June 12 rejected the sign in a 3-3 vote. Then the same proposal came back before the commission two weeks later and won approval, 6-1, with many members arguing that the sign met legal requirements. The day after that second vote, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl attended a golf event as a guest of UPMC. And that same month Mr. Ravenstahl hired UPMC Health Plan's David White as his director of public affairs (Mr. White was Mr. Ravenstahl's high school athletics trainer).

The three planning commission members who originally voted against the sign all have said they were not pressured by UPMC or the mayor's administration to change their positions. Two of the three reiterated those statements for this article. A third -- Lynne Garfinkel -- could not be reached for comment this week.

Kyra Straussman, who voted 'no' on June 12 and then told a reporter the sign was "overkill," did not show up for the second vote due to an issue involving her child and "a dilemma at school." She acknowledges receiving a call from Pat Ford, who at the time was the mayor's director of economic and community development, "asking why I voted the way I did."

"He wanted to know what was on my mind." But "that is not that unusual;. Literally it was a question . . .I had limited comments to make." Also, "it wasn't that uncommon for us to talk issues."

But "no one called and said, 'do this.' "

Ms. Straussman is no longer on the planning commission and now works for the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority. Mr. Ford is on paid leave as director of the URA pending an investigation into gifts he received from a billboard company executive. Ms. Straussman began talking to the URA about a job before Mr. Ford became director and before the first UPMC sign vote on June 12, she said.

Ms. Ernsberger said she did not get a call from Mr. Ford or anyone connected with the mayor's office or UPMC.

"Nobody has ever tried to twist my arm, ever."

After the first vote, UPMC clearly was not pleased with the outcome. It issued a statement arguing that city code "is clear on the issue of signage size, and our proposed sign is significantly smaller than what is allowed" -- which was true. Attorney Cliff Levine, asked to represent UPMC after the first vote, said the planning commission decided to reconsider the issue "on its own."

He added: "UPMC didn't make that decision."

The city planning director and zoning administrator could not be reached for comment, but Pittsburgh city solicitor George Specter recalled getting a phone call after the first vote from Mr. Ford, who wanted to know if a request could be made for the entire commission to hear the matter (several missed the first vote).

"Yes, they can do it but they have to do it quickly," Mr. Specter remembered saying, noting that a reconsideration request has to be made within 30 days.

He and Mr. Ford also discussed the legality of the sign. "He told me in his opinion it met the criteria," Mr. Specter said. "I went and looked at it and agreed."

Mr. Ford, through his attorney, did not dispute the conversation with Mr. Specter or Ms. Straussman. "One of his functions included interaction with the planning commission at the direction of Mayor Ravenstahl," said his attorney, Lawrence Fisher, via e-mail. "Mr. Ford respects the mayor's trust in the executive decision he was charged with implementing."

And when the sign came back before the planning commission, the legal arguments held sway.

"From a legal perspective, they are entitled to it," said planning commission member Todd Reidbord, a part owner of Walnut Capital Partners in Shadyside. And "I don't think it's gaudy or flashy. It is very nice ... I think signs add vitality to a city ... it shows Pittsburgh's happening."

Commission member Paul Dick was not present on June 12 but voted "yes" the second time, with some reservations. "I don't like those signs," he said. "But they are within the code."

"I was flabbergasted to find out it hadn't passed."

But Ms. Ernsberger argued the city code allows for signs to be rejected for reasons other than size, citing a section stipulating that a new project "must adequately address the preservation of historic structures and significant features of existing buildings."

"I believe," she said, "the U.S. Steel building has a history and it should be retained as the type of building it is."

Dan Fitzpatrick can be reached at or 412-263-1752.


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