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Pittsburgh skyline might be in for an upgrade

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Sunday, March 4, 2012
 

It doesn't take a "Renaissance" to change a skyline.

Three large building projects in various stages of development -- two Downtown and one on Mt. Washington -- promise to dramatically change views from around the city. And all three should end up being appealing.

The three are:

• PNC Financial's plans for a new 33-story headquarters building on Wood Street between Fifth and Forbes, designed by Gensler, a firm headquartered in San Francisco that is one of the best-known designers of tall buildings in the country.

• A new 17-story hotel, office and retail complex on Forbes just up the street from Market Square. This is being designed for Millcraft Industries, real estate developers from Washington County, by Arquitectonica, a Miami-based firm that has been doing elegantly modern architecture around the world for the last 35 years.

• A 25-story hotel and condominium project to be called One Grandview Avenue, overlooking the city from a site next to the Monongahela Incline, with an imaginative design by Desmone & Associates, a well-respected local firm.

The most prominent of the three, from the perspective of how Pittsburghers might view these changes from the ground, is the PNC plan. Their proposed new headquarters -- due to be finished sometime in 2015 -- is one of a new breed of skyscrapers showing up around the world that will introduce to our city the idea that even the tallest of buildings can dare to have curvy facades, in this case with a lot of glass.

The $400 million structure will not just be an adventuresome one for architecturally staid Pittsburgh, it also is intended to be a highly energy-efficient one, as well -- a big accomplishment for a skyscraper. PNC, in fact, says this building aspires to be the "greenest" skyscraper anywhere.

Another adventuresome building is the one planned for Mt. Washington. It may be a surprise to one day see a 25-story building next to the Mon Incline sloping up from east to west in the shape of a huge white sail. But that's just one thing that guarantees that this hotel and condo project will be a fascinating conversation piece if built as planned.

Besides the sail-shaped tower, plans include a large plaza that will extend the promenade of Grandview Avenue, overlooking the city, another 200 feet beyond the Incline. This will be in line with the existing sidewalk along Grandview's city-side edge. The tower, with 160 hotel rooms and six to eight luxury condos, will sit back about 120 feet from this edge, creating the plaza.

Then, below and around the edges of the plaza's platform, the designers propose about 50 condominiums that will resemble the village-like clusters of turn-of-the century millworker houses that cling to the South Side Slopes. (Thus, with expensive modern condos, will 21st-century Pittsburgh honor its past!)

Unfortunately, condos are harder to finance than hotel rooms, and as the Chicago-based developers piece together financing they may find the condos expendable. We'll have to wait to see how the financing goes before we know how this approximately $80 million project is going to turn out. But, we can probably sum up the architects' plan with one short word: Fun! This could bring a playfully exciting addition to the city if and when built.

The biggest worry about structures on Mt. Washington is height. The steep cliffs of the ridge rise about 400 feet above Downtown, and buildings even half that height can diminish the dramatic setting that nature provided for our city. But it's likely the tower in this project will be far enough from the edge that we won't feel that it has unbalanced our view.

The sail shape of the tower, by the way, is not an architectural stunt, but something worked out carefully to preserve views of the city for the houses behind it. Let's hope this project works.

The third building, the "Gardens at Market Square," is the $77 million hotel, condo and retail complex to be built by Millcraft. While "The Gardens" is not as glamorous as what designers Arquitectonica usually produce -- and is in no way a risk-taker -- it is a solid solution to a difficult site. Although part of the building faces and will sort of loom over Market Square, it will be set behind a line of existing buildings that define the edge of the square. The main entrance will be on Forbes.

It's essentially a building made up of three cubes. The cube facing the square will be a Hilton Garden Inn, while two cubes stacked behind it will constitute the office tower and parking. Several features of the design may make it ultimately a winning one for Pittsburghers. The hotel has been intentionally placed facing the square, insuring a lively lit facade in the evenings. And the hotel's public spaces -- meeting rooms and restaurants -- will overlook the square as well. A garden-like courtyard between hotel wings and set about four stories above and overlooking the square could be another attractive feature.

Designs for all three projects may change, of course, before they are built. (Today's plans for the Millcraft building, for example, are far more sophisticated than a preliminary rendering published last year.) But all three buildings should be positive and even exciting additions to our city.

 

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