In March 2018, the Sterling Building in Carnegie that houses Papa J’s Ristorante went up in flames. A fire burned in a stove in one of the upstairs apartments that got out of control and was “cooked off the roof,” recalls Michael Troiani, whose family owned the building.
“Directly above number 5 (apartment) was number 11, where my 25-year-old friend and colleague (John Michael Wells) died of smoke inhalation,” says Troiani, President of the Troiani Group. “Devastating. Really, one of the best people I have ever met … He was the superintendent of this building and someone I valued as a friend.”
The fire also displaced 25 residents, rendered more than 40 restaurant workers unemployed, and destroyed a beautiful mixed-use building from the 1890s – a longstanding anchor for the revitalized Main Street business district in Carnegie. The loss was felt throughout the church.
The Troiani family promised to rebuild and are now on their way forward.
This week, plans were presented to the Carnegie Planning Commission for a new mixed-use development – one floor higher than the original three-story building – that will include 42 apartments on a new business park and a new home for a new Papa J’s restaurant.
“My father was a real estate developer and has built, owned and operated a number of great commercial buildings in his life,” says Troiani. “And he often built a restaurant on the first floor to create added value, and an owner-run business on the first floor. Over the years he has had 11 different restaurants. “
As many Pittsburghers can attest, Papa J’s was special at Carnegie.
It’s been “almost 32 years of operation and all of the life we’ve touched and all of the friendships, marriages and babies,” says Troiani. “A lot of life has happened within these walls over the years, so I couldn’t wait to come back to it.”
Papa J’s was known for classic Italian home cooking, and Italian is likely to be the spotlight in the future. The shape and size of the restaurant has yet to be determined.
“Here’s my goal: someone is going to pull up on Broadway looking for a white pizza based on the haunting memories they had in the past – and I don’t want to disappoint them,” says Troiani.
They plan to use modular construction to speed up the process, and the hope is to reuse some of the architectural details – keystones, arches, lintels – salvaged from the Sterling Building. Completion is expected by the end of 2021.
The adjacent buildings at 212 and 214 East Main Streets were purchased and demolished in 2019. The new plan provides 45 parking spaces in order to meet the requirements for zoning.
“In two weeks I will be heard by the planning committee and advised by their external engineer,” says Troiani.
The Troiani Group works with Pieper O’Brien Herr Architects who have a local office on the north side.
“The Carnegie people are great people,” notes Troiani. “I look forward to revitalizing Main Street. I know my colleagues and businesses on Main Street miss the activity and traffic generated by Papa Js. “
Dead end street in the city center
There was also a Papa J’s Downtown downtown, in the Firstside Historic District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The restaurant closed in 2013 and the Troiani group demolished the rundown 19th century building. The company also owns several buildings nearby, including the former Froggy nightclub building, which they plan to demolish as it has deteriorated significantly. Their goal is to build a skyscraper on the site with 200,000 square feet of Class A office space, 151 residential units, a rooftop terrace and street-level retail stores at the intersection of Market Street and First Avenue.
These plans are rejected by heritage conservationists, including the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, which believes the buildings can still be used. The Troiani family disagree, saying they are irreparable and at risk of potential breakdown and danger to those nearby.
The Troiani Group recently lost two decisions by the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas for permission to demolish the 1860s Froggy building and its two neighbors. You will appeal the decisions to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.
Strip District plans
The Troiani Group also owns a renovated former Pennsylvania Railroad office in the heart of the Strip known as the Twin Plaza Building. The tenants range from a CMU tech startup to the legendary Pamela’s diner. After a long pandemic break, there is some movement here.
“I’m really excited,” says Troiani. “On the first floor, I’m talking to a great soul food company that is interested in working on the former Smallman Galley site.”
There are also tentative plans for a huge development in a parking lot Troiani owns on the edge of the Strip District’s busy central business district. It’s more than an acre between Penn Avenue and Smallman Streets, 23rd and 24th Streets.
This could affect 260 residential units above retail. “Now we would certainly activate the streets there with some sidewalk cafes, but we also really want to make some creative, merchant-like windows on the streets that are curated with some great art collections,” says Troiani.
“We will offer a plan for this site as soon as we have confidence.”
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