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Adding homes could be next phase of Station Square development

| Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, 9:26 p.m.
Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, looks out of his office Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, onto Station Square, where a new owner might decide to build residential housing.
Traffic streams through Station Square, Friday, Jan. 11, 2013. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
The sun sets over Bessemer Court in Station Square, Friday, Jan. 11, 2013.
The sun sets over Bessemer Court in Station Square, Friday, Jan. 11, 2013.

The view from Arthur Ziegler's corner office in the Landmarks Building includes a swath of Downtown, the Monongahela River and the eastern edge of Station Square, a panorama that could prove pivotal to the future of the South Side riverfront development.

Those elements appeal to people who might want to live near restaurants and shops along the river, experts said.

“We did market studies years ago for residential, including with focus groups. They were quite positive,” said Ziegler, president of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, which developed Station Square in 1976 from the former Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad complex.

The foundation no longer is involved with running Station Square, but someone soon could dust off its old plans.

Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises, which bought the property in 1994 for $25.5 million, hired CBRE Inc. in December to actively market Station Square to potential bidders.

“There has been a significant amount of interest both in the market and nationally,” said Forest City spokesman Jeff Linton. “It's a great destination property.”

No asking price has been announced and no deadline set for reaching a deal. Yet real estate and development professionals predict the next owner of Station Square likely would consider adding a residential component to enhance the property's value.

“I like a residential component to Station Square,” said Jim Scalo, president and CEO of Burns & Scalo Real Estate Services, a Green Tree developer. “Mixed use feels right.”

A built-in market of people living on the property is attractive to developers, said Maureen McAvey, a senior fellow for residential development at the Urban Land Institute in Washington.

“It livens up the offerings,” she said.

The market demand appears to exist.

When apartment occupancy rates hit 98.6 percent in the second quarter of 2012, Pittsburgh was the only market in the United States with less than 2 percent of units vacant, MPF Research reported.

Vacancy rates for the 2,079 apartments across the river in Downtown stood at 4 percent for that quarter, the most recent figures available, according to the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.

“The rental market in Pittsburgh overall is at the highest it has ever been, in terms of need,” said Yarone Zober, chief of staff to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and board chairman of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, an economic development agency. “Our hope would be that anyone looking to acquire (Station Square) would explore all possibilities.”

Ravenstahl's administration wants developers to take advantage of opportunities along the city's riverfronts, Zober said.

Proposals to develop the 178-acre former LTV site along the Mon in Hazelwood and the 37-acre Riverfront Landing along the Allegheny River in the Strip District include residential units. The same should be considered for Station Square, Zober said.

“That site is as good as any site to do it,” he said.

Forest City considered adding apartments or townhomes, Linton said, but the economy scuttled those plans.

“We definitely think there is that opportunity,” Linton said. “It could help Station Square become ‘live, work, shop.' It would make it even more well-rounded.”

Adding housing could boost business for the 40-plus restaurants, clubs, offices and shops and help attract businesses such as a gym, urgent care center, movie theater or boutique grocer, McAvey said.

The make-up of stores inside the Commerce Court retail mall has changed dramatically. Specialty shops replaced anchor tenants such as The Limited and Laura Ashley, and several spaces remain empty.

The Bradford School, a for-profit career institute, moved from Downtown to Station Square in 2004 and takes up about a third of the Freight House, a former train shed.

Yet Forest City reports the number of overall visitors remains steady: about 3 million people annually. Websites such as Yelp.com and TripAdvisor.com include positive reviews from Station Square visitors, McAvey said.

“People still like the attractions and still go there,” she said. “It's not at the end of its life, by any means.”

The next phase of its existence could prove or disprove that.

“It feels a little tired. It feels a little worn,” Zober said. “Maybe someone new coming in will bring some new energy.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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