Brian O'Neill: Apartments finally part of North Shore development

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Sure, there has been $150 million in development between the North Shore stadiums in the past decade, but where are the apartments? And why is the newest office construction only three stories high?

Frank Kass is ready for questions like this. He’s the Columbus, Ohio, developer who has partnered with the Steelers and Pirates to build the hotels, office buildings, bars and restaurants betwixt the stadia. There the teams have development rights they must use or lose.

It‘‍s something of a balancing act. Every new building takes away surface parking even as it adds parkers. The Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority built a $29 million, 1,255-space parking garage eight years ago to replace some of what was lost, but that now fills every weekday morning as commuters access free subway rides Downtown.

Mr. Kass’ Continental Real Estate Companies expects to break ground on a 10-story apartment building across Mazeroski Way from PNC Park next spring, but that must be complemented by a new garage or two with as many as 750 spaces to accommodate both new renters and current parkers.

Nobody’‍s going to want to pay 2 grand to rent a 900-square-foot luxury apartment if it doesn‘‍t include private parking, Mr. Kass said. His group speaks from experience. It built the Arena Crossing Apartments across from where the Columbus Blue Jackets play hockey.

Two grand is more than most can afford, but the hot rental market Downtown suggests that these apartments should easily attract enough empty-nesters and single professionals desiring a view of both the ballpark and the Golden Triangle with their morning coffee.

Such residences were always part of the city‘‍s plan. When Continental submitted its North Shore Master Plan a dozen years ago, no fewer than five buildings east of the Fort Duquesne Bridge called for first-floor retail with residential above, but a hotel and an office building are the results there thus far.

Everything from the worldwide recession (and the subsequent tightening of bank credit) to construction of the North Shore Connector slowed development, Mr. Kass and his sports team partners said. That subway was tunneled beneath where they needed to build, and for a long time it left a big mound of dirt where they might have built.

That same subway is now a great amenity, however. Tom Armstrong, who chaired the city Planning Commission for more than a decade ending in 2005, has been disappointed by recent low-risk additions by Continental. The three-story office/​retail buildings now under construction stand across North Shore Drive from taller buildings facing Point State Park. They’‍re “like putting the little guys in the back row of the photo opportunity,” Mr. Armstrong said.

Mr. Kass said he could have built taller buildings with 150 percent more office space and then tried to fill them with tenants who would have no place to park. Or he could have gone broke because he couldn’‍t fill them, he said.

“Broke or underparked – we chose to be neither.”

We were doing all this talking at the busy Jerome Bettis Grille, so he invited me out to walk North Shore Drive with him. With the new construction, that street has for the first time office buildings on both sides, fulfilling the master plan.

“This is what I wanted you to feel,” he said as we walked a street with wide sidewalks.

The scale of the new construction seemed right, and gave walkers that sense of being in a pleasant outdoor room that the best urban corridors should have.

Residential construction was bound to be the toughest piece of this puzzle because apartment dwellers, unlike office workers, need parking spaces nights and weekends when sports fans arrive looking to get out of their cars. But every Pittsburgher has a right to poke and prod this development as its final pieces are put into place. Hundreds of millions in public dollars went into the stadiums, restored street grid, park, amphitheater and subway extension that attracted all the private dollars that followed.

Remembering the three decades of zilch that surrounded Three Rivers Stadium, we have witnessed a remarkable transformation for the North Shore. Blank and bleak are out; green and breathing are in. Hundreds more apartments can only add more life to a Downtown that increasingly feels split by the rivers, not surrounded by them.

Brian O‘‍Neill: or 412-263-1947.

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