Downtown Pittsburgh stretch of Penn Avenue flourishes

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A two-block Downtown stretch of Penn Avenue is undergoing a mini-renaissance.

New stores are opening, at least three developers have plans to build more residential units, and one school just moved in and another is expanding -- all in 800 and 900 blocks of Penn.

"It seems like all the little gaps are starting to get filled in now," said John Valentine, executive director of the Pittsburgh Downtown Community Development Corp.

The two blocks near the David L. Lawrence Convention Center weren't shabby by any stretch, not with a Courtyard by Marriott hotel, the Penn Garrison and several bars and restaurants anchoring the area.

PG graphic: Penn Avenue development
(Click image for larger version)

But another growth spurt appears to be in the works. Even the Blush strip club is getting into the act.

Tangible proof will come in the form of flavors like Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey when Ben & Jerry's opens its first ice cream parlor Downtown at 936 Pennnext Friday.

But that's not the only project in the making.

Trek Development Group is talking to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust about converting three trust-owned buildings at 819, 821 and 823 Penn into 30 apartments and 4,800 square feet of commercial and retail space. Trek also converted the Century Building on Seventh Street into 60 apartments and commercial, office and retail space.

Bill Gatti, president of Trek, said the new project is still in the "very conceptual stage."

"The Cultural Trust is interested in the idea but we have a lot of fundraising to do yet," he said.

Trek and the Cultural Trust are considering a combination of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments with rents initially estimated at $750 to $1,350 a month. Mr. Gatti said the rates are geared to the "moderate, middle market, real people."

"That's where we believe the real growth to be in the Downtown housing market," he said.

Mr. Gatti said officials would like to start the project this year. They are seeking a $750,000 state redevelopment assistance capital grant as well as other financing. Mr. Gatti declined to release a cost estimate for the conversion.

Two of the buildings in question are six floors and the other one is two. A violin shop, art space and a pizza parlor occupy street level storefronts but the upper floors are vacant.

"It's one of the primary corners in the heart of the theater and arts district, one of the primary under-utilized corners, and there's excellent development momentum on Penn Avenue. We're looking to pick up on that momentum and move forward," Mr. Gatti said.

A few doors away, at 907-909 Penn, developer Todd Palcic is just getting started on a conversion that will yield 31 apartments. Mr. Palcic hopes to start construction this fall and have the units ready in a year.

As part of the development, he plans to add two floors to the top of the seven-story building. The apartments, 27 one-bedroom and four two-bedroom units, would rent from $1,500 to $2,300 a month. Each would have a balcony or patio, and the top floors would have views of the Allegheny River.

Mr. Palcic, who has developed condominiums in other sections of Penn, also is hoping to add a restaurant and bar at street level with outdoor seating.

Next door, PMC Property Group is adding another 33 apartments to the Penn Garrison, bringing the total number of units to 150. Jerold Novick, PMC executive vice president, said the new units, mostly one-bedroom units, on the first and second floors and mezzanine level should be ready in the fall. Rental rates haven't been determined.

He said PMC, which bought the building last year for $13.5 million, is using under-utilized space it found within the existing complex to convert to apartments. Asked why PMC decided expand, Mr. Novick said simply, "Demand's been excellent."

Meanwhile, Blush owner Albert Bortz is preparing a corner storefront at Ninth Street and Penn adjacent to the club for restaurant or retail use. Attorney Jonathan Kamin said Mr. Bortz has been in negotiations with "a couple of tenants" and hopes to have someone in the space this fall.

"We're actively pursuing a retail or restaurant opportunity that we think will be complementary to the neighborhood," he said.

Blush also is adding banquet rooms and hospitality suites to the upper floors of the strip club on Ninth as part of a settlement with the Cultural Trust and the Pittsburgh Public Schools. That project should be done within the next six months, Mr. Kamin said.

The other new addition in the 900 block is Kaplan Career Institute, which opened its doors to more than 590 students, faculty and staff on Monday after moving from Wood Street.

Kaplan now occupies six of the eight stories in the building, most of which was empty before the school moved in, and expects to use more in the future. Rugby Realty, the property owner, spent an estimated $8 million to $10 million renovating the structure.

Larry Walsh, Rugby senior vice president, said he expects to the school to add to the vibrancy in the area.

"It's really going to energize the street in terms of adding 500 people to dine at the restaurants and to patronize the other amenities already there," he said. "It's just going to take it and make it more dynamic."

The 900 block also is home to Urban Pathways Charter School, which added an elementary school at 925 Penn last year and expects to expand into more space this fall. The high school is at 914 Penn. Both buildings are owned by Rugby.

Mr. Walsh credits the construction of the new convention center as the catalyst that prompted developers to invest in the area. Since 2000, Rugby has become a major property holder. It also owns 930 Penn, the site of the Seviche restaurant and 20 apartments, and 922 Penn, anchored by Sharp Edge Bistro, with office space above it.

Mr. Walsh is encouraged by what he's seeing around him.

"I would just say we've reached a critical mass where success is now being gained by each piece of the puzzle fitting in and feeding off the others," he said.


Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262.


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