Pittsburgh warehouse will thaw into apartments

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Developers in and around Downtown have turned all sorts of buildings into apartments or condominiums -- a department store, old company headquarters, a one-time brewery, a five and dime, and a former cork factory, to name a few.

But a massive icebox? The Sampson Morris Group intends to give it a shot.

A representative for the Monroeville developer briefed the city planning commission Tuesday on a proposal to convert a former cold storage warehouse used for years by Robert Wholey & Co. into a 144-unit apartment complex.

"It's like a big freezer, literally," said Eric A. Booth, a principal in Desmone & Associates, the Lawrenceville architectural firm that is assisting on the project.

Sampson Morris purchased the 330,000-square-foot New Federal Cold Storage building, the one with the giant smiling fish on one side, for $2 million in November 2008 and has been trying to figure out what to do with it for five years.

It considered condominiums, offices, a hotel, parking, even demolishing it and starting new, but all were ruled out for one reason or another.

Dating to 1930, the windowless cold storage building at Penn Avenue and Smallman and 15th streets is built like a bomb shelter, with a 12-inch-thick concrete outer skin and a 16-inch-thick inner skin separated by a gap.

Sampson Morris intends to remove much -- but not all -- of the outer skin and punch holes in the inner skin to create balconies or patios for those living in the apartments.

While the developer plans to leave some of the faded signage on the building as a tribute to its past, the smiling fish that greets visitors coming into the Strip on Smallman won't survive the makeover, Mr. Booth said.

"The fish does have to go," he said. "The reason is that the fish is just basically a string of LED lights and that's really all it is. [There's] not actually a form to it."

He noted that the fish is located in an area of the building where the developer will have to cut through the walls to create units. He added that while it may be possible to salvage the string of lights, the figure itself is considered signage by the city and may not conform to current standards.

Of the 144 apartments, at least 100 of them will be two-bedroom models, with about 1,200 square feet of space. The one-bedroom units will run 800 to 900 square feet.

While the high number of two-bedroom apartments surprised planning commission member John Valentine, who said one bedroom units appear to be more popular Downtown, Mr. Booth explained that the developer believes there is a demand for the larger units.

"I think there's a void of units of size. I think this is going to appeal to a different market than the Downtown because we're actually going to provide a lot of space," he said. "Even the one bedrooms will be generously sized because we really have the space to do it."

The developer also will convert a smaller annex into a recreational area, which will include a pool, a great lawn and a fitness center.

As part of the redevelopment, Sampson Morris also plans to install on one side of the building an 80-foot-high vertical wind turbine custom made by WindStax Wind Power Systems on Smallman Street. It will be used to power the exterior lighting. The developer will seek a LEED silver rating for the project.

Mr. Booth said the conversion could start in the spring. He did not know the total cost of the project or what the units would rent for, referring those questions to Sampson Morris President Dave Sarver, who could not be reached for comment.

As part of the cold storage building conversion, the developer is planning two levels of indoor parking with at least 190 spaces. There also will be parking for 160 bicycles.

neigh_city - businessnews

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


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