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Upcoming Downtown projects renovate, invigorate

John Conti
| Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
The facades with Cricket Wireless and Weldins along Wood Street, Downtown.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
The facades with Cricket Wireless and Weldins along Wood Street, Downtown.
An old bank facade which Point Park University is planning to preserve and restore and which may serve as a side entrance to the Playhouse on Forbes Avenue, Downtown.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
An old bank facade which Point Park University is planning to preserve and restore and which may serve as a side entrance to the Playhouse on Forbes Avenue, Downtown.
Restored cast iron storefronts on Wood Street, Downtown.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Restored cast iron storefronts on Wood Street, Downtown.

We can say so much that's good about Downtown these days — new and renovated parks and fountains, small public plazas, ice skating at PPG Place, the redesigned Market Square.

But the next big new thing in the evolution of Downtown is the architectural fugue that is being composed right now along Wood Street.

There, between Fifth and Fourth avenues, we will soon see a mix of restored, small-scale, late Victorian and turn-of-the-century storefront buildings of four to six stories set in counterpoint to the ultra-modern headquarters building that PNC Corp. is putting up at Fifth and Wood. PNC's new 33-story gem will be, it is claimed, the greenest, most energy-efficient tall building in the world.

There will be a lively balance of old and new, large and small, offering both visual strength and visual subtlety. Moreover, with three ornate old “skyscrapers” from the early 1900s at Fourth Avenue — the Arrott Building, the Bank Tower and the old Union National Bank Building, now converted to the Carlyle residences — it will be, all in one place, an architectural reminder of Pittsburgh's past and future.

The resulting streetscape promises to be populated day and night by a mix of office workers, students, visitors, new Downtown residents and, eventually, by theater and concertgoers when Point Park University relocates its Oakland Playhouse to Wood Street.

The new PNC headquarters is scheduled to open in 2015. No date has been set for the Playhouse project, but Point Park is raising funds and has its preliminary plans in hand. Besides all that, just a half block from Wood, on Forbes toward Market Square, will be the new Market Square Gardens, providing offices, stores and a new Hilton Garden Inn. Construction there is also to be finished by 2015.

Ten storefront restorations in the space of two blocks are being carried out through partnerships between the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, financed by a mix of city, state and private monies. The renovated storefronts include three newly restored cast-iron facades at 418, 420 and 422 Wood, as well as several shops that front on Wood and will face the new PNC tower.

Included in the two blocks is the venerable Weldin stationery store, valued by Downtown workers for several generations, and such previously little-noted buildings as the headquarters of the Italian Sons and Daughters of America. This latter building, at the corner of Wood and Forbes, with a handsome facade dating from 1929, was recently liberated from an orange-mesh metal screen that for years covered the top two of its three stories. This screen was the result of a misguided earlier attempt to create a modern facade. Today, the building looks like the proud original.

There are still vacant storefronts on Wood, and some are deteriorated. But the good news is that once PNC, Market Square Gardens and the Playhouse are in place, all of these shops will soon enough find new uses, cleaning up and re-energizing one of the few remaining neglected areas Downtown.

There's not just visual value in this juxtaposition of the old and new. The renewal and reuse of these old buildings will demonstrate conclusively the economic value that historic preservation creates.

With all the arguments that inevitably occur over preserving old buildings, several things stand out. First, attractively restored old buildings are almost always greeted enthusiastically by the general public, and they become well-used. Also, renovating old buildings can be considered energy-efficient because the energy and resources spent to build the original structure are conserved. Some city planners and architects like to think of old buildings as “embedded energy.”

Finally, older buildings in urban neighborhoods that predate the automobile are people-scaled, and can have intimate street-level appeal. They are far more pleasant than neighborhoods like suburban shopping centers or urban superblocks (think of Allegheny Center on the North Side) that are scaled for cars.

One issue still to be resolved is the fate of three beautiful terra-cotta facades, not on Wood street proper, but on Forbes, a half block to the east. These three buildings are to be demolished to make way for Point Park's new Playhouse project, yet they contribute as much to Forbes as the cast-iron storefronts contribute to Wood. The university has said it will carefully dismantle and reconstruct in a garden at the site the most ornate of the three — the facade of the old Honus Wagner sporting goods store. But preservationists would prefer that they remain in place along the street, a better solution, if possible.

Point Park has been absolutely exemplary in its dedication to historic preservation as it has expanded its Downtown campus in recent years, and it is currently negotiating with preservation groups to resolve the issue.

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic preservation issues.

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