Point Park University's enrollment growth spurs expansion

Real estate purchases make school a key player in redevelopment of Downtown corridor

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From its humble roots as a secretarial school 74 years ago, Point Park University could be poised to become a prime-time player in Downtown's ongoing redevelopment.

With at least 16 properties under its control, Point Park has the opportunity to reshape the Wood Street corridor from Fort Pitt Boulevard to Forbes Avenue in much the same way the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has transformed Penn Avenue on the other side of the Golden Triangle. It is the second largest property holder Downtown, behind the Cultural Trust.

Among those holdings are four properties on Forbes and two on Fourth Avenue in the heart of the Downtown retail corridor that could give the university a strong voice in the Fifth and Forbes redevelopment, either alone or in partnership with other developers.

Some believe Point Park could end up moving its Pittsburgh Playhouse, now in Oakland, to that area, creating more of a synergy between the retail corridor and the bustling Cultural District.

The acquisitions have been driven in large part by an enrollment boom that has seen the private university go from 2,305 students 10 years ago to 3,600 this fall.

As it grows, Point Park undoubtedly will look to the acquisitions to fill the need for more dormitory and classroom space. But at the same time, many believe the property holdings position Point Park to be a key player in Downtown's revitalization.

The university will pay the Washington D.C.-based Urban Land Institute $158,340 for help in mapping the future of its campus -- and perhaps Downtown as well.

Land Institute experts will be in Pittsburgh next month to study ways to better integrate the Point Park campus into the Downtown neighborhood, to make recommendations for street improvements and to study street-level retail opportunities.

"Basically what they're trying to do for us is to get a unified look for our properties so we truly have a campus presence Downtown," said Angela Burrows, Point Park senior director of marketing and communications.

The Land Institute study is one of three initiatives under way looking at the university's future. A master space plan is analyzing interior needs and a strategic plan is looking at the academic end.

Point Park President Paul Hennigan was not available last week, and other university officials declined to talk about plans for the properties Downtown.

But Mariann Geyer, Point Park vice president for institutional advancement, told city Urban Redevelopment Authority board members earlier this month that the school sees the Land Institute study as a "wonderful opportunity to bring the neighborhood together in this part of Downtown."

Former URA Executive Director Jerome Dettore said its property holdings give Point Park a unique opportunity to create a "university district" along Wood Street much like the Trust has shaped the Cultural District.

"They're going to create a university district Downtown that will have its own image, which will be interesting to tourists and others. It's going to become a new area of Downtown," he said. "It's going to be part of the new vitality of Downtown, I think."

Point Park's most recent acquisitions involved the West Penn Building at the south end of Wood Street for $9.5 million and the former Stock Exchange Building on Fourth Avenue for $645,000. The university also is in the midst of closing on a building at 100 Wood next to a parking lot it already owns. The earlier Forbes purchases and a parking lot on Fourth cost Point Park $2.45 million.

The purchases expanded the university's footprint Downtown. With the acquisition of the Stock Exchange Building, Point Park now has a mass of properties on Forbes and Fourth to tie into its University Center on Wood in the same block. University Center is the former Bank Center retail complex, which houses the university's library, screening rooms in former movie theaters and conference space.

With the West Penn Building and the pending purchase of 100 Wood, the school will own or lease nearly all the property along Wood from Fort Pitt Boulevard to Third Avenue, including its Academic and Lawrence halls.

It currently leases the Conestoga Building, the location of a new Starbucks, on Wood across from the West Penn Building, and Pioneer Hall at 111 Wood for dormitory space. It also leases the Patterson Building on Third Avenue behind Academic and Thayer halls and recently began leasing two floors in the Bank Tower on Fourth.

This fall, Point Park also is expected to open a new $15.4 million dance and performing arts building on the Boulevard of the Allies next to refurbished Lawrence Hall.

And some believe it also has an interest in the YMCA building across the street, which is up for sale because the Y has decided to move into the old G.C. Murphy's store in Market Square in late 2008 or early 2009. The building seems like a prime opportunity for Point Park, which has long had a need for gym and recreational space.

There's also talk that Point Park may be eyeing the Wood Street Commons building on Wood next to Lawrence Hall. That building, also an old YMCA, provides bridge housing for formerly homeless people and other social services.

The school already has indicated it would be interested in the Honus Wagner sporting goods building on Forbes next to its other properties if it ever becomes available.

Ms. Geyer would not speculate on the YMCA building or any other potential acquisitions after the URA meeting but said university officials "continue to always keep our eyes open" for expansion opportunities.

Herb Burger, who headed the task force that lured Millcraft Industries to Pittsburgh to redevelop the former Lazarus-Macy's and Murphy's buildings, said Point Park could be "a major factor" in Downtown's redevelopment.

"I think Paul Hennigan is a very forward-looking, intelligent executive who, I think, is determined to build and strengthen Point Park as a factor in the city," he said.

Washington County-based Millcraft has had some preliminary talks with university officials about possible partnerships, particularly involving the Forbes Avenue properties, but no recent conversations, said Lucas Piatt, the company's vice president of real estate.

He said more in-depth discussions probably won't occur until after Point Park has completed its master planning process, but added he definitely sees the potential for some partnerships.

Whatever Point Park ends up doing with its properties could affect overall development on Fifth and Forbes and in Market Square, he said.

"We see their campus as having great possibilities to drive economic development. It's really the right type of crowd. It's an energetic crowd, that type of thing you want Downtown," he said.

Herky Pollock, executive vice president of real estate firm CB Richard Ellis/Pittsburgh, said he sees Point Park converting more buildings Downtown into dorm space as enrollment and the demand for housing increases.

He believes Point Park and other Pittsburgh colleges and universities are "growth engines for the region. Medical institutions and educational institutions are all rapidly growing, which is the impetus for new development success throughout our region," he said.

Point Park has not been very specific about potential uses for its more recent property acquisitions, one of the issues the Land Institute study and master space plan likely will address.

The university eventually may move its business school to the West Penn Building. Mr. Hennigan also has said the university would look at the Forbes and Fourth properties for classrooms, housing and perhaps even athletic facilities.

In announcing the opening of the Starbucks in the Conestoga building, Mr. Hennigan said it represented Point Park's "commitment to look at other possible retail opportunities at street level within the university footprint."

"Our goal is to be a good neighbor, adding vibrancy to the neighborhood while at the same time providing our students with a quality academic experience," he said.

Tom Sullivan, a commercial broker with Pennsylvania Commercial Real Estate who sold the Stock Exchange Building to Point Park, said the university indicated that it was interested in using the space for administrative offices.

Mr. Sullivan sees both good and bad in the university's expansion Downtown. On one hand, converting office buildings to housing helps to ease the glut of office space on the market. But the purchases also could end up taking more properties off the tax rolls because of the school's tax-exempt status.

And while some see the growing student population Downtown as a blessing, Mr. Sullivan questioned whether it would attract much development. He said that students, generally speaking, don't have a lot of money to spend and there may not be enough of them.

"Development wise, I don't think you're going to get enough regional and national retailers to care," he said.

Ralph Falbo, developer of the 151 First Side condo tower Downtown, sees all those students as a plus. "My theory is that live bodies Downtown at night are good," he said.

Mark Belko can be reached at mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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