Architects competing to design Downtown skyscraper

| Saturday, March 31, 2012

Architects responded with nearly 50 designs when a Green Tree developer asked for ideas for replacing a Downtown parking lot with an 18-story tower overlooking the Monongahela River.

Now developer Burns & Scalo hopes the top candidates among those firms will help lure a big-name tenant or two to the proposed $60 million project.

"We are ideally looking for a major corporation to have a signature headquarters location with eyebrow signage," said CEO Jim Burns, who mentioned U.S. Steel and GNC as possibilities. GNC declined comment, and U.S. Steel said it was "exploring alternatives" for when its lease in its signature tower ends in 2017.

"I believe we will see a major gas and oil company set up its headquarters Downtown," Scalo said, a well-known local developer whose current projects include converting the former Goodwill headquarters on the South Side to a $20 million apartment-retail complex, and two new office buildings in Southpointe II in Cecil Township.

His firm this week announced three finalists from its competition to design the skyscraper to fit onto a 27,000-square-foot lot on Fort Pitt Boulevard, near One Smithfield Street, which Burns & Scalo also owns. Construction would begin when one or more tenants agree to occupy at least 50 percent of its planned 300,000 square feet of space.

The firm did not make finding tenants a requirement, but bringing one in would increase its chances of being chosen to design the building.

The three finalists are Desmone & Associates of Lawrenceville, Downtown-based IKM Architects, and GBBN Architects, based in Cincinnati with an office in Moon, which is teaming with Celli-Flynn Brennan Architects and Planners, Downtown.

Joel Bernard, principal and partner at IKM, said developers normally secure both the site and a tenant before selecting an architect. But he and the other finalists said they would pass along names to Burns & Scalo.

"It's good business to help the developer obtain a tenant, although architects are not as familiar with the real estate market as are commercial real estate firms," said Luke Desmone.

"Although assisting the developer obtain a tenant was never part of the design challenge, we certainly would help the developer with that information," said Steven T. Kenat, a principal and director of community development with GBBN.

Burns & Scalo picked the finalists from 49 original submissions, which it culled to 19 and then eight designs. A planned tenant could go back and select any of the eight, Scalo said. The goal of the contest was to have an architect help find a tenant.

"The concept of the architectural contest was an idea from an internal think tank -- our chief strategy officer and creative services director -- and to my knowledge, it has never been done," Scalo said.

Burns & Scalo would finance the building locally. Depending on the tenant's needs, Scalo said he would seek city permission to go higher than the 18 stories allowed by zoning at that site.

Yarone Zober, who is Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's chief of staff and chairman of the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority board, said he wasn't aware of any city involvement in the project.

"But we are excited about new private investment Downtown and throughout the city," he said.

The proposed designs vary among the three finalists.

Melissa Annett of IKM said she considered the city's bridges, particularly the nearby Smithfield Street Bridge, in a design that offers an atrium providing light into the structure.

"The atrium would cover the bottom three floors, and at the top of the building more light would be provided," she said. The rectangular tower would have an arching curve up through the center of the structure, culminating in overhanging glass through the middle of the top five floors, she said.

Desmone said his design takes into account the smaller buildings of five to six stories close to the site. The building would use a square base that terraces back into an angular office tower. It would reflect the glowing views of Mt. Washington and the river.

GBBN's Kenat said its building would push sustainable construction with a glass rectangular high-rise with an angular green roof.

The five other finalists are The Design Alliance, Downtown; DLA+ Architecture & Interior Design of Green Tree; Edge Studio of Garfield; Strada Architecture LLC, based Downtown; and Tasso Katselas Architects, Shadyside.

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