Pittsburgh Counts Down To A New 12 months Amid The COVID-19 Economic system

By Rich Lord | December 23, 2020

The 2020 economy ends with many questions for Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, and we can only hope that 2021 will answer some of them.

Through early January, we’ll raise some of those questions on this page, recap 2020 developments, and share some forward-looking insights.

Do you have an economic development question? Email it to rich@publicsource.org. We can’t promise that we have the answer, but we’ll provide whatever intel we can.

New today: A Golden Triangle of issues.

Can Downtown recover its swagger after a year of social distancing?

There was a time when it was hard to park affordably Downtown. And then there was a time, for two months early in the pandemic, when Downtown street parking was free — and yet it was easy to find a space.

Since then, some workers have come back Downtown, but the area hasn’t regained its bustle, let alone the jollity of shoulder-to-shoulder events like Light Up Night and First Night.

“Downtown is a place that was built for density — office workers, cultural venues, conventions — and as a result, Downtown has largely been viewed as unsafe since the beginning of the pandemic,” wrote Jeremy Waldrup, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, in response to PublicSource’s questions. The Golden Triangle has seen “a small fraction” of its usual 9 million annual visitors, he wrote, “and that factor alone has significantly impacted the local business community.”

(Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

The marquee on The Byham Theater Downtown Pittsburgh.

In short, Downtown could use a shot in the arm.

Toward the end of 2020, there were signs at City Planning Commission meetings that developers remain confident about Downtown’s future. In October, the commission heard plans to convert the Allegheny Building from offices to apartments. The quirky Triangle Building is getting the same treatment.

Waldrup said more residents will attract more stores and service businesses, and hopefully contribute to a “robust recovery” for the hard-hit restaurant sector.

On the retail side, city planners got a look at the Target store coming to the building that once housed Macy’s, and before that Kaufmann’s.

Waldrup called Target’s impending arrival “likely the biggest catalyst for growth.” He added: “There are several retailers looking at Downtown spaces and we expect to see more announcements as we move towards recovery.”

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Will Downtown take a bite out of the Strip District, or feed its growth?

The City Planning Commission tapped the brakes on Strip development, but only briefly.

Plans for a 20-story tower on the 1500 block of Penn Avenue reached the commission in September, only to be panned by commissioner Sabina Deitrick as “a Lego office building” and “a massive overtaking of the view.” In December, though, developer JMC Holdings submitted a modified design which still reached 20 stories on the Downtown side, but with four mini-towers that gave it more flair than the typical Duplo creation. It won commission approval.

An artist’s comparison of prior (left), and new, proposed designs for a building on the 1500 block of Penn Avenue, in the Strip District. Both designs have been presented by JMC Holdings to the City Planning Commission.

The site is on the eastern end of an unusual four-block-by-three-block area. That end of the still-quirky Strip is zoned as part of the Golden Triangle, permitting Downtown-esque building heights. JMC’s plan will bring the shadows of towers closer to the low-slung shops along Penn Avenue and Smallman Street, even as the neighborhood is seeing new apartment and condo projects, plus the revival of the Terminal and commercial developments led by 3 Crossings.

The pace of change is “kind of overwhelming,” said Chris Watts, chair of the Community Development Committee of Strip District Neighbors, in a December interview with PublicSource. “It’s certainly going to be an interesting time as the Strip transitions.”

He said his group of Strip residents, business owners and property owners isn’t panicking. Far from it.

Redevelopment of the Golden Triangle side of the Strip could add to the retail rebound by making foot or bike travel from Downtown more inviting, Watts said. “The gateway between Downtown and that [Strip] commercial core, we think is really important to bring in the people.”

New residents, meanwhile, could become patrons of longstanding Strip shops, he said. “Strip District Neighbors certainly welcomes [growth], in the context of appropriate development that pays attention to the Strip’s history and works in conjunction with the community.”

Will the Froggy’s controversy simmer on, or jump start Firstside?

Debate over a cluster of buildings along First Avenue and Market Street, Downtown, had City Planning Commission meetings hopping like no other 2020 proposal.

Developer Troiani Group wants to demolish three long-empty buildings, including the one that housed the iconic Froggy’s bar, to make way for a proposed 385-foot residential and office tower. Preservationists argued that doing so would undermine the Firstside Historic District, and claimed the buildings could be preserved.

Troiani got approval to demolish one of them from the city’s Board of Appeals. But after three very long meetings, the commission denied Troiani Group’s application to raze the other two.

(Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Brothers Michael (left) and Nicholas (right) Troiani in one of their buildings in Downtown Pittsburgh’s Firstside district. They say deteriorating brick makes it impossible to save the structures.

Troiani appealed to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, arguing that the buildings “are of no historical significance” and can’t be saved in any economically viable manner. The city’s lawyers countered by citing testimony that the buildings could be reused, and contending that the commission “weighed the conflicting evidence,” so its judgment should be respected. Judge Joseph James held a hearing Nov. 30, and a decision could come at any time.

Michael Troiani said he has a demolition contractor ready to go should James rule in his firm’s favor. Then he’ll turn toward lining up the tenant he’ll need to finance the new tower.

“We’ll really push a national marketing campaign to bring a new user to the city of Pittsburgh” with a promise of “pandemic-resilient offices” in Downtown’s southern flank, Troiani told PublicSource in December.

The envisioned tower would also include 150 residences, and/or a hotel. Troiani said he doesn’t think the pandemic changes Downtown’s long-term prospects. A human being is “a social being, and I don’t think that’s going to end. I don’t think city living is over. I just think it’s going to have to evolve.”

When the floodgates of eviction open, will there be lifeboats for tenants?

The coronavirus spurred a series of curbs on eviction that started on March 18. Currently in place: a CDC order barring most ejections through year’s end, and an order by Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark that postpones most landlord-tenant proceedings until after Jan. 8.

“It has been a really confusing situation for both landlords and tenants,” said Robert Damewood, staff attorney in Pittsburgh for the nonprofit law firm Regional Housing Legal Services, which represents nonprofit landlords. “Moratoriums that have been in place have only been in place for a couple of months at a time. Every time they’re near expiration, it just creates sort of a panic.”

In September, during just a few days between statewide and CDC moratoriums, Allegheny County landlords filed hundreds of cases that could end in the ejection of tenants. The numbers declined after the CDC stepped in.

With the pandemic clearly not under control even as vaccination begins, no one is ruling out further moratoriums or curbs. Last month, Allegheny County Council issued a nonbinding call for an eviction moratorium through Oct. 1.

Moratoriums are, by definition, temporary. Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, which has been tracking evictions, recently completed modeling suggesting that without further curbs, courts could be overwhelmed by thousands of eviction filings through 2021.

The periodic panics have spurred some local innovations: The Just Mediation Pittsburgh program, for instance, aims to bring a neutral problem solver to the table before the landlord files for eviction. The crisis, though, has not led to any structural changes to a system that, pre-pandemic, produced around 1,000 eviction filings per month in Allegheny County.

“I don’t know anyone who is planning long-term,” said Damewood. “It’s all advocates can do to get moratoriums extended short-term.”

Will construction finally start on the former Civic Arena site?

The Penguins’ development team gave Pittsburgh its most gripping business story of 2020.

The team’s Pittsburgh Arena Real Estate Redevelopment LP [PAR] and its chosen developer Buccini/Pollin Group [BPG] are leading a $1 billion plan to build on the 28-acre site of the former arena. PAR got the rights to the site as part of the 2007 deal that resulted in PPG Paints Arena, and in 2014 agreed on a plan, with the City of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and the Hill Community Development Corp., to make the project work for the neighborhood.

But nothing has been built. If 2020 was a playoff series, it looked something like this.

The Penguins’ team claims that next year will represent a turning point.

(Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Now a parking lot, the future of the 28-acre site of the former Civic Arena continues to be a bone of contention between the Pittsburgh Penguins’ development team and the Hill Community Development Corp.

“We will be under construction in 2021 on the FNB Corporation tower, Live Nation music venue, parking garage, and first phase of housing, creating thousands of badly needed construction jobs to help the city and region recover from the pandemic,” Penguins Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel Kevin Acklin wrote in response to PublicSource’s questions.

Marimba Milliones, president and CEO of the Hill CDC, is hopeful, but not satisfied.

“I expect construction to move forward this year assuming PAR and BPG reconfigure and come back to the table with an adequate proposal that meets this moment, and marks this as a turning point for our city and for the Hill District,” she wrote to PublicSource. She added that “they still have a ways to go.”

Acklin wrote that BPG and the Penguins are working on every aspect of the agreement with Hill community leaders, including:

  • Plans to include local residents in construction work
  • More than $2 million in commitments to minority- and women-owned businesses
  • Speedy contributions of proceeds from tax increments and parking tax diversions to investments throughout the Hill
  • Partnership with the Hill CDC on winning an infrastructure grant
  • Investments in the Hill District Federal Credit Union, Ammon Recreation Center and proposed City’s Edge housing development
  • Participation in discussions about Macedonia Church’s potential expansion, the proposed Curtain Call public art project and development of small business kiosks
  • Construction of a minority business incubator and a public safety facility.

Milliones wrote that after the “near destruction” of the Hill to make way for the arena, it’s time to “make this right. … This project is not solely about marketing, it’s about true and measurable economic impact, and they have to rise to the occasion just as they rose to the occasion to secure the most valuable land in the city at no cost.”

Can Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority spur development, save homes and serve as the roofer of last resort?

Back when the pandemic was young, the Urban Redevelopment Authority released a consultant’s report suggesting that the city’s development agency should become more focused, better connected to potential partners and more resourceful. With the COVID economy upon us, the URA was simultaneously rolling out new programs to help renters, homeowners and small businesses.

By year’s end, URA staff was touting stats like 1,100 households stabilized, of which 85% were minorities. The authority also emerged as a source for funding for large roofing projects. In November alone, the URA subsidized roof work on the Homewood Library, Bry Mard Apartments and Homewood Coliseum, a month after it set aside $3 million to fix the Hunt Armory roof.

It’s hard to say whether that reflects a sharpened focus. But the URA’s agendas since then have reflected one thing that Executive Director Greg Flisram predicted in April: “a more full turn away from the large master redevelopment projects.”

(Photo collage by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)

Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Greg Flisram (right) and URA board Chairman Sam Williamson (left) discuss the condition of the roof of the Hunt Armory, in Shadyside, during the URA board meeting, conducted remotely, on Oct. 8, 2020.

Aiding transformative development projects used to be the URA’s bread and butter. But the flow of big-ticket proposals slowed dramatically starting in spring.

Flisram blamed “a period of adjustment” in the commercial real estate industry. Instead of dishing subsidies for big buildings, the URA joined with the city to launch the Avenues of Hope plan to prioritize seven neighborhood business districts.

Flisram wrote, in a December email to PublicSource, that “2021 will likely bring more of the same as the economy shifts to recovery/rebuilding mode” and predicted “an even greater focus on overcoming racial disparities.”

Much will depend on the federal government’s willingness to stimulate the economy, and the distribution of a coronavirus vaccine, Flisram added. “2021 will very much be a rebuilding year economically.”

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

Develop PGH has been made possible with funding from The Heinz Endowments.

This article was produced by PublicSource.org, a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. PublicSource tells stories for a better Pittsburgh. Sign up for their free email newsletters at publicsource.org/newsletters.

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