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Point Park University credited with revitalizing Downtown neighborhood

| Saturday, April 26, 2014, 7:26 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Point Park University president Paul Hennigan at the school's Downtown Pittsburgh campus in 2014.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Point Park students Kalen Quillen, 22, left, and Kristin Crupi, 22, enjoy the warm weather as they sit in the university's plaza along the Blvd. of the Allies, Downtown on Thursday afternoon, April 24, 2014.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Point Park student Sammie Sanchez, 20, enjoys the warm weather as she sits in the university's plaza along the Blvd. of the Allies, Downtown on Thursday afternoon, April 24, 2014.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Point Park University president Paul Hennigan poses for a portrait on the campus on Thursday morning, April 17, 2014.

Six years after it debuted an ambitious plan, Point Park University's Downtown campus remains a work in progress.

Neither the Pittsburgh Playhouse nor a planned athletic/student center has come to fruition. But the university's bet on a rundown city corridor changed the flavor of the neighborhood and marked the start of development. Projects such as the Tower at PNC Plaza and the Gardens at Market Square took shape, and people began seeking apartments and condominiums throughout the Golden Triangle.

“What you're seeing now is really the convergence of several major forces in Downtown coming together: Point Park, PNC and Pittsburgh History and Landmarks,” said Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership President Jeremy Waldrup.

Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, said Point Park's work on the Wood Street corridor was key to much of what is happening around it.

“They not only seeded the ground, they grew the plants. Point Park has become one of the biggest restorers of architecturally significant buildings Downtown. They have taken building after building, restored them for their use, and have treated them very well,” Ziegler said.

Point Park President Paul Hennigan said school trustees saw what others could not and stuck to their plan even when the economic downturn hit just weeks after the school made public its $200 million-plus Academic Village project in 2008.

Anne Lewis, Oxford Development Co. board chairwoman and chair of Point Park's board of trustees, said scaling back was never an option for the private university, best known for its performing arts and communications programs.

“We need the critical mass of the Academic Village to remain a vital part of the Downtown mix and a distinctive element within Pittsburgh's higher-education community,” Lewis said. “If you look at most thriving urban centers, you'll find a city university like Point Park at their heart, whether you're talking NYU in New York's Greenwich Village or George Washington University in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of D.C.”

Point Park's Academic Village brought a small but critical mass of people Downtown when it boosted its resident population from 350 a decade ago to 958 last fall.

The students were part of an influx to the neighborhood, where population increased by 40 percent to about 9,000 between 2000 and 2010.

Developer Eve Picker, who has renovated six Downtown buildings since 1997, remembers a time when Downtown seemed deserted after 5 p.m.

“Up until a decade ago, the majority of the Downtown residential population was the people living in the county jail,” said Chris Briem, a regional economist with the University of Pittsburgh.

“In the last five years, it's begun to feel like a residential neighborhood,” Picker said. “You see people out walking dogs in the evening and using the river trails. It probably was a big bet for Point Park. But they wanted a campus, and they got one.”

Trustees hit a few speed bumps. In January, Osteria 100, a restaurant in the university's Village Park, closed after 18 months of operation. Henninger said the school has another partner lined up for the restaurant and is optimistic it will be a better fit.

On sunny days, students go to the park the university created from a drab parking lot at the corner of Wood Street and the Boulevard of the Allies.

Point Park senior Emily Bastaroli, 22, said the Downtown campus attracted her.

“I've seen a lot of change in the character of the Downtown neighborhood, mostly along Wood Street closer to Market Square with the new PNC building. I love the old buildings within the Downtown community, and seeing them get modern updates is pretty cool,” she said.

Hennigan predicted 200 students will move Downtown when Point Park relocates its performance venue from Oakland to a new Pittsburgh Playhouse that will include three theaters and technical production facilities that should be an even bigger recruitment tool.

Original projections called for the Playhouse to be complete by late 2014 or early 2015. Now, Hennigan says, “It would be fantastic if we were turning ground within a year.”

He said Point Park, which needs to raise $53 million for the Playhouse, is in the silent phase of a fundraising campaign.

Waldrup predicted the Playhouse, which draws 40,000 non-student patrons a year to Oakland, will increase Downtown traffic on evenings and weekends.

“Once all of that comes together, you're not going to recognize that area,” Waldrup said.

Lewis is determined to complete Point Park's plan.

“If I've learned anything, it's been to stay focused on doing the right thing for our students and our faculty and to keep moving forward,” she said. “Economic conditions might affect when we reach our goal, but we're not going to let them affect whether we reach our goal.”

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or

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