Future of old Pittsburgh film building in question

Plan for Uptown structure hangs on off-street parking

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The former Paramount Film Exchange building in Uptown has no off-street parking to go with its redevelopment plans, and Pittsburgh's zoning code says it needs 12 spaces.

In making its case for a special exception before the zoning board of adjustment on Thursday, the renovation team pointed out that the building is surrounded by sufficient on-street parking, is near a leading transit corridor and has a contingent of waiting tenants who bicycle.

The board's decision is expected by early next month.

Plans for the 8,500-square-foot historic structure at Miltenberger Street and the Boulevard of the Allies include space for an incubator of tech startups, a photography studio, a cafe and restaurant, and an energy system that's as close to passive as possible.

Three years ago, in the wake of the building's designation as historic by the city, Realtor Rick Schweikert bought it from UPMC for $50,000. UPMC's plan at the time was to demolish the building. Mr. Schweikert replaced a leaking roof and updated the electrical feed. When he sold it to photographer Alexander Denmarsh in the fall of 2011 for the same price, he said the sale was "the best way for me to move the building forward."

Mr. Denmarsh assembled a team that included Bernie Lynch, the principal of Strategic Development Solutions, and architect Page Thomas. Mr. Thomas was relieved of his duties last fall and replaced by Laura Nettleton and Michael Whartnaby of Thoughtful Balance, a firm that focuses on sustainable design and passive energy use.

Last year, the county's infrastructure and tourism fund granted $250,000 to support the renovation Mr. Denmarsh said will cost about $750,000. The development team is seeking a match from the Urban Redevelopment Authority and additional private financing, he said.

Tom Link, director of the URA's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, told the zoning board that the URA's board has yet to vote on the matter, "but we will be working with this team on financing. We see it as an economic development stimulator, and this is an opportunity to use a significant historic structure."

The team presented the zoning board with a letter of support from city Councilman Daniel Lavelle, who could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Denmarsh said he is hoping construction can start in March, with occupation by tenants in the fall.

Twelve companies with 60 workers under the aegis of StartUptown are expected to occupy 6,000 square feet. Mr. Denmarsh will expand his home photography studio in the building as well.

The most recent work has been exploratory demolition to find the plumbing and sewer infrastructure. No plans or drawings of the original construction could be found, he said.

Ms. Nettleton, whose practice focuses on sustainable architectural design, said passive-house standards would be almost impossible to meet with this building, in part because there's no money in the budget to test materials.

"We're involved in a retrofit, and it's difficult with an older building," she said. "We're going to use the windows we would use in a passive house. We got that through [historic review] since we don't have a record of what the building looked like originally. We're trying to take energy efficiency as far as we can."

Besides triple-pane windows, spray foam insulation and a high-efficiency residential heating and cooling system will minimize maintenance, Mr. Denmarsh said.

He said the project is about two weeks away from final construction drawings. The floor plan will be open, modern office space without much build-out.

The Paramount is brick and framed in terra cotta, with decorative scrollwork and egg-and-dart molding. The studio's logo is still in place over the main door.

Built in 1926, it was one of a half-dozen buildings along the boulevard that were owned by film studios and used to screen films for theater owners into the early 1980s. The county used it to store chemicals for several years afterward.

In 2008, UPMC acquired the building in the course of its merger with Mercy Hospital.

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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