Digging Downtown: New lofts, apartments attracting younger residents
Paul Hlivko and Melinda Urick have been living in The Penn Garrison Apartments, Downtown, since last September.
Tim Earnest and Angie Paiano, who both live in Penn Garrison Apartments Downtown, at the Sharp Edge Bistro on Penn Avenue.
Melinda Urick works at home in The Penn Garrison Apartments.
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For Tim Earnest, the move from a flat, rural suburb of Indianapolis to Pittsburgh last February came as a bit of a culture shock.
"The first time I heard 'yinz,' I had no idea what it was," he said.
But less than one year later, Mr. Earnest, 25, has become a bona fide Downtowner -- a regular at the Sharp Edge Bistro on Penn Avenue who enjoys taking in Pirates games, runs more than 35 miles per week on the city's trail system and has made himself at home in his Penn Garrison studio apartment, which he shares with Scooter, a shaggy 2-year-old Havanese.
"The way it looks -- kind of a grungy, older feel -- is not really how it plays out," said Mr. Earnest, who supervises Clean and Safe programming for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. "It's a very cultured city [with] a lot of sophisticated professionals here."
Mr. Earnest is part of a rising wave of young Downtown residents, a population that's slowly challenging age-old perceptions of the city as a rusting blue-collar haven by day, lethargic ghost town by night.
A 2010 survey by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership found that the peak age range of people living in the Golden Triangle is 25 to 29, accounting for 15.5 percent of all residents from Point State Park through 11th Street.
According to the study, the percentage of residents in that age range is even higher -- 19 percent -- in the "greater Downtown" area, which extends beyond the Golden Triangle to include parts of the North Side and South Side, the Bluff and the near-Strip District. The study did not include Allegheny County Jail inmates or students living in dorms Downtown who attend Duquesne University, Point Park University or the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.
"The more people move in, the more people will see Downtown as a place to stay," said Hollie Geitner, a spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.
"It's starting to happen, but there's still a lot more improvement [to go]."
Pittsburgh has long been a poster child of blue collarism, a former steel town that now faces tight budgeting issues, a $1 billion pension shortfall and a Downtown corridor that struggles to keep businesses afloat. But it's also a scrappy city that's emerged relatively unscathed from recent recessions, boasting Forbes.com's 2010 "Most Livable City" title and a Downtown population that has been on a steady increase.
According to the PDP, 1,279 rental and condominium properties have sprung up in the greater Downtown since 2000 -- a trend that's slowly ushering in a new sense of vitality to the area.
High atop the Encore on 7th Downtown, Jamie Seabrook, 25, shares a 1,137-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment with Olivia Benson, 25, a longtime college friend she met during minority pre-orientation at Carnegie Mellon University, and her two attention-loving cats, Abi and Min.
Ms. Seabrook, originally from Westchester, N.Y., and Ms. Benson of Aliquippa, are exceptions to the Pittsburgh "brain drain" -- the city's reputation for attracting students to its 11 colleges and universities, but losing them four years later to a stagnant area job market.
"I think it's a positive to be young in an old city," said Ms. Seabrook, who works Downtown as a youth support partner supervisor for Allegheny County's Department of Human Services. "People actually take you seriously, and they're really impressed that you can do your job well.... I really appreciate that here."
At the Encore on 7th, rates for apartments like theirs range from $1,895 to $2,395, depending on square footage and views of the city.
Cleveland natives Melinda Urick, 33, and Paul Hlivko -- who did not give his age but noted he's on "the higher end" of the 25 to 29 range -- moved Downtown in September, after Mr. Hlivko spent several months splitting time between the two cities as a technology manager for a Pittsburgh-based financial services group.
Though the couple shared a Downtown Cleveland apartment and were well-connected to the up-and-coming restaurant scene there, they had few qualms about leaving their native city.
"I love Cleveland. I think they've got a lot going for them," said Mr. Hlivko, sipping a brew at Sharp Edge Bistro. "But what I kind of like about Pittsburgh better is they maintain the culture and community and business environment Downtown. Cleveland hasn't."
Their one-bedroom loft at The Penn Garrison features exposed brick, industrial beams and floor-to-ceiling windows that offer panoramic views of Downtown, the Penn Avenue corridor and the North Side stadiums -- the perfect inspiration for Ms. Urick, who works from home as a blogger and social media manager.
It's also a prime location for soaking up the Downtown outdoors scene. Since moving to Pittsburgh, the couple has found opportunities to kayak, hike and camp locally through Venture Outdoors and city meet-up groups, and Ms. Urick's city "bucket list" still includes scaling the stairs at Pitt's Cathedral of Learning. Currently, she is training for her March tryout for the Steel City Derby Demons, Pittsburgh's all-female roller derby league.
"I love how outdoors-centric this city is," Ms. Urick said, adding that she's noticed more Downtown bike riders here than in Cleveland. "You feel like, so often, you're just stuck around concrete ... but when we look out the window and see the rivers and the mountains, I feel like it's not that far away to get out and away for all of that."
Ms. Seabrook and Ms. Benson are fans of Downtown's restaurant circuit, listing tapas bars Seviche and Bossa Nova, August Henry's City Saloon and The Sonoma Grille, a wine bar and eatery, among their favorite local bites and after-work happy hour hangouts.
"Our fridge is always empty because we're always going out to dinner and lunch," said Ms. Seabrook.
"Oh, it's terrible. It's embarrassing," joked Ms. Benson.
The roommates say they're the youngest "by far" on their floor of 30-somethings and middle-aged residents, and they spot more young people Downtown during working hours than on the weekends. But since moving in last year, they have hosted house parties and get-togethers, prompting some of their friends to start asking about apartment availability Downtown.
"I feel like we're the ambassadors for all the people that we know of living Downtown," Ms. Benson said. "It's a good place to be right now."
For many young professionals, the attraction to Downtown is largely a matter of convenience -- and of skipping out on daily commuting costs.
"It's a lot easier for me to walk to work, instead of driving Downtown and paying to park," said University of Pittsburgh alumnus Mike Franklin, 25, who lives in the Morgan at North Shore, which the PDP counts among the 32 apartment buildings in the "greater Downtown" area.
But the convenience and parking savings come with a trade-off -- higher housing and living costs than their commuter friends.
"Downtown here's a lot more expensive. We were really surprised," said Ms. Urick, estimating that between rent, restaurants and travel, their cost of living is now 10 to 20 percent higher than when they lived in Cleveland. At The Penn Garrison, rents for lofts like theirs begin at $1,400 monthly, including a parking space in the Theater Square garage.
Pittsburgh developers such as Bill Gatti, president of TREK Development Group, understand that the high price is a major barrier for young people looking to move Downtown.
Mr. Gatti opened the Century Building on Seventh Street in the Cultural District, a 60-unit complex that reserves a portion of apartments for income-restricted buyers. The building sprung to full occupancy within three months of opening and now boasts a 1,500-strong waiting list.
At the Century Building, monthly rents for market-rate studio apartments range from $615 to $850, excluding utilities. Rents for similar-sized, income-restricted apartments run $515 to $575, including electric, making them a big draw for recent college grads and other twenty-somethings who crave an urban lifestyle.
Mr. Gatti said more than 60 percent of Century Building residents are age 30 or younger, and there are no children living there.
"The vast majority are young, up-and-coming urban dwellers," he said. "But they can't afford to live Downtown without any help."
As chic lofts and rental properties in neighborhoods such as Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, Garfield and Lawrenceville offer lower-price alternatives to the Golden Triangle, many developers believe it's not worth the hassle to invest in Downtown apartments.
"It's very difficult to find a way to fund these things. We don't have enough people in Pittsburgh to have a strong market," said Eve Picker, whose no wall productions inc. focuses on inner-city property revitalization. "Most developers are just trying to figure out how to break even."
Mr. Gatti predicts that the Downtown housing market will continue on a steady growth trend through the next 10 years. But Ms. Picker said that amid rising construction costs, Downtown living can grow only if there's increased demand there versus other Pittsburgh neighborhoods.
"I'm not saying it's terrible. We're somewhere. It's just not a stable market yet," she said of Downtown. "I think it has the potential to be a fabulous neighborhood."
According to young residents who already are settled Downtown, it'll require more than housing options to attract young people to the area.
The lack of a Downtown grocery store is not a major concern, said Mr. Hlivko, a self-proclaimed foodie who does the couple's cooking and is looking to register for a community-supported agriculture program in the spring.
"Everybody goes, 'Well, how do you buy groceries?' And the hypocrisy of it is, 'Well, how do you drive to work five days a week?' " he said. "We do the same thing that everybody else does when they shop: We get in our car, and we drive to the grocery store."
Ms. Seabrook said Downtown could use more shops and specialty boutiques, and Ms. Benson wants a Redbox movie rental kiosk.
"I think about that all the time. That's a serious need for us," Ms. Benson said.
Mr. Earnest would like to see more green space and dog parks in the Golden Triangle, or perhaps a destination mall to attract local weekenders to Downtown.
As the end of his lease at The Penn Garrison approaches, Mr. Earnest is considering other Pittsburgh neighborhoods, just for the sake of trying "something different," he said.
He is unsure whether he'll settle in Pittsburgh for the long-term -- that will depend on his job -- but for now, he and Scooter are content living in the heart of the city.
"Pittsburgh has a very up-and-down history, and now they're on an up," he said. "It's just cool to be a part of that."
First Published February 27, 2011 12:00 am