Point Park does itself proud

John Conti
| Sunday, April 29, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

Much has been done, and there's still much to do, but Point Park University is acquitting itself well in its ambition to transform its corner of Downtown.

Though small -- the private university has just 4,000 students -- it is enlivening and preserving parts of six city blocks that include some of Downtown's most remarkable turn-of-the-century architecture.

This neighborhood was once the financial center of Pittsburgh. It was the city's equivalent of Wall Street -- and it comprises two score or more old banks, office towers and commercial buildings dating to the era when Pittsburgh's banks held more money than those in any city other than New York.

Point Park calls its $244 million, 10-year project the "Academic Village," stressing the idea that it's expanding in discrete pieces in a way that fits in well with the existing fabric of the city. It has spread out along the neighborhood's streets mostly by imaginatively re-purposing, remodeling and, in some cases, restoring architecturally rich older buildings.

The school's classrooms, labs, studios, dormitories, gymnasium and offices occupy 18 owned or leased buildings Downtown, but only two of those buildings are entirely new.

This is a vertical, almost "anti-campus" approach that is typical of urban universities in Europe, but almost never seen in America. It avoids the land clearing, city-busting "superblock" style that some urban schools wanting to expand have tried -- and the dislocations and controversy that usually accompany that. The rancorous political and neighborhood wrangling that has enmeshed New York University as it tries to expand in Manhattan's Greenwich Village is just the most recent example.

In relative terms, Point Park's expansion plans are probably no less ambitious than NYU's. It's just that they better respect what is already there.

The school's neighborhood includes four blocks along Wood Street, much of two blocks along the Boulevard of the Allies, and parts of Forbes, Fourth and Third avenues.

In addition to the grand old 22-story former Sherwyn Hotel -- now called Lawrence Hall -- re-purposed buildings include one of the handful of Downtown commercial buildings with an intact cast-iron front. It's on Wood Street, painted green and so, quite naturally, has come to be known as "The Green Building." It contains admissions offices. Another little noted gem in the collection of buildings is the West Penn Building at the end of Wood Street -- a striking 1906, 12-story "Chicago-style" office tower with lush terra-cotta decoration across its facade. It is now the university's business school.

The most impressive piece of the Academic Village expansion will occur, though, when Point Park brings the Pittsburgh Playhouse, the school's performing arts center, to Downtown from Oakland. The entirely new Playhouse, planned to contain three theaters and a sound stage, will stretch from Fourth to Forbes, directly behind a cluster of low rise buildings known in recent years as the Bank Center mall, but now renamed University Center.

The heart of University Center is the former Colonial Trust Co., designed by eminent Pittsburgh architect Frederick J. Osterling over a period of years starting in 1902. As you enter from Wood Street, you encounter a breathtaking T-shaped former banking hall of white, dark-veined marble with a vast stained-glass ceiling three stories above. This is currently the university library, but, eventually, the library will move, and this will become an elegant entrance lobby for the new Playhouse behind.

The university is still working out timing and funding for the Playhouse project, so it hasn't set firm dates for a move.

So far, the recent addition to the Academic Village most obvious to passersby is a newly opened pocket park at Wood Street and the Boulevard of the Allies. It replaces a parking lot and what had once been a gas station with a new street-level arcade, a water feature and a glass elevator tower that enliven what had been the bland sides of two university buildings. It's been so popular that the university has already doubled the number of tables and chairs there.

A new restaurant will soon open on this plaza -- and there's already a Starbucks on the other side of the street.

Othe plans include remodeling and adding to the former YMCA building on the Boulevard of the Allies to create a convocation center.

In partnership with the city, the university is in the middle of an 18-month project to install new granite curbs and brown, exposed aggregate sidewalks with granite borders along Wood Street. Then, at the end of Wood, a new "portal" to the Monongahela River will be built in partnership with Riverlife Pittsburgh using landscaping and a covered walkway to access the new park and trail alongside the parking on the Mon Wharf.

Complementing the university's efforts, the two largest new buildings to be built Downtown will be close by -- the new 33-story PNC Financial headquarters building on Wood between Fifth and Forbes and Millcraft Industries' new Gardens at Market Square, a 17-story hotel, office and retail complex on Forbes.

All of this change pretty much guarantees a lively mix of students, shoppers, office workers, Playhouse-goers and visitors to this once central, then once neglected, part of our city. The vibrancy of cities is never assured, and Pittsburgh can be grateful to Point Park for its role in this change.

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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