New life as hotel or office space foreseen for old Federal Reserve Bank

Chicago developer talks of offices, hotel

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It's the kind of building made for James Bond -- gun turrets at one entrance, an eighth-floor firing range, and a rooftop deck for late-night rendezvous.

And it could be Downtown's next boutique hotel or Class A office complex.

Long a repository for money and U.S. savings bonds, the Federal Reserve Bank on Grant Street could find new life far from its original mission under new owner M&J Wilkow Ltd. The Chicago developer purchased the building, opened in 1931 but now vacant, for $3.75 million last month and is now considering two options for its future use -- hotel or office space.

In keeping with its portfolio, filled with all office buildings and shopping centers, M&J Wilkow originally targeted the bank for offices. But once it had the building under agreement, it began getting calls from major hotel operators interested in touring it.

Out of those inquiries, another potential reuse was born.

"That was kind of a pleasant surprise, the hotel option, and it really has legs to it," said Martin Sweeney, M&J Wilkow vice president of acquisitions.

At least four international hotel operators have inquired about the building. The developer envisions an upscale boutique hotel with about 175 rooms at the location, which is a few blocks from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and near many of the Grant Street office towers and government buildings.

While Mr. Sweeney would not divulge that names of the operators, he said that all are "name brand flags" and that some are interested in developing new urban boutique hotel concepts patterned after European hotels. He added the company was trying to get a flag unique to Pittsburgh.

"These would be international hotel operators but with new concepts or brands, brands that are not within Pittsburgh yet," he said.

The building features a three-story banking room that could easily be converted into a hotel lobby, he said. There are also four lower-level bank vaults -- one 38 feet by 60 feet with a 30-inch thick steel door -- that could be converted to dining rooms or fitness space, he said.

"Former bank buildings make great hotel conversions," Mr. Sweeney said. "Most have really nice lobbies that convert to hotel lobbies."

"We welcome any investment in that luxury category and look forward to working with them," said Craig Davis, CEO of local tourism group VisitPittsburgh. "That type of hotel in that location would be a great attraction for conventions."

The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, which oversees Pittsburgh operations, closed the building last year and relocated the remaining staff to One Oxford Centre. In 2011, it eliminated the jobs of all but 25 of its 320 employees because of plans to discontinue the paper sale of U.S. Savings Bonds and other securities.

Designed by Cleveland architectural firm Walker and Weeks, the original bank branch contained seven stories. A 10-story addition was completed in 1958.

Despite the interest from hotel groups, M&J Wilkow still is giving an office conversion strong consideration. Mr. Sweeney estimated that the bank, with about 200,000 square feet of total space, could yield about 140,000 square feet of office space.

The developer is in "early talks" with two large office users, Mr. Sweeney said. Although he would not identify the companies, he said both are "household names" that currently do not have any presence Downtown.

Asked if either was an energy company, he replied, "They could be. It's a few different industries but industries very active in driving our economy."

M&J Wilkow hopes to decide within the next 60 days which option it intends to pursue.

Whatever way it goes, the building won't lack conversation pieces.

Mr. Sweeney said the structure contains an eighth floor firing range used by protection officers for practice. He believes it could be converted into a bowling alley or bar and lounge.

The gun turrets guarded a loading facility off William Penn Place that was used for armored cars, Mr. Sweeney said. The developer plans to convert the indoor loading area into parking for about 26 vehicles. There's also a 40-space parking deck off Grant Street.

A rooftop deck measuring about 3,000 square feet also is situated on the William Penn Place side of the building. It could be used as an outdoor terrace for a hotel or office user, Mr. Sweeney said.

The developer intends to gut much of the interior to make way for the conversion. Mr. Sweeney did not know whether it would keep some of the unique features, such as the firing range, for future users.

The bank is the first office building that the developer has purchased Downtown. M&J Wilkow and Big Shopping Centers USA also bought the Waterfront shopping complex in Homestead for more than $110 million last year.

Mr. Sweeney said the developer is actively pursuing other investments Downtown and in the suburbs. He said the firm is pleased with the Waterfront investment, adding that Pittsburgh's economy stacks up well with those of much larger cities like Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, Dallas and Atlanta.

"Pittsburgh is right there with everyone else, if not better, in terms of the strength of your economy," he said.

neigh_city

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


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