Plans moving forward on development of Pittsburgh’s Garden Theater Block |
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Bob Bauder

After more than 20 years of starts and stops, an effort to redevelop an eyesore on Pittsburgh’s North Side known as the Garden Theater Block is moving forward with a $17 million plan for an apartment building and repurposed movie theater.

Downtown-based Trek Development hopes to secure Pittsburgh zoning and planning approval and begin construction of a five-story apartment building at North Avenue and Federal Street in early 2020, according to Bill Gatti, the company’s president.

“We’re very excited to finally have a chance to bring this important project to fruition, and we’re grateful for all the support we’ve gotten from the community groups on the North Side,” Gatti said. “We know that everybody just wants to see something good happen there after all this time.”

Plans call for ground-level retail and 57 market-rate apartments on upper floors of the building. Amenities include a fitness center, garden and rooftop deck.

Gatti said he hopes to attract commercial tenants to the Garden Theater space. Plans call for three studio apartments on the second floor. Built in 1915, the theater was a popular motion picture venue through the 1970s, when it shifted to X-rated films and finally closed in 2007. The former theater marquee, sign and original lobby have been restored.

“There’s still a lot that has to happen before we move forward,” Gatti said. “We could start as early as spring, say March or April, but it’s not tomorrow.”

Construction could take 12 to 18 months, he said.

North Side residents have complained for years about a lack of progress on the corner that was once a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes.

The city since the 1990s has spent more $10.5 million to help improve the Federal North Development Area in a two-block radius of the theater.

Development has included a large medical office building and neighboring parking garage with street-level retail along with housing and new businesses on Federal. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh opened a branch there in 2009. The City of Asylum, a nonprofit that offers literary and community programs, rehabilitated a former Masonic hall next to the theater, creating the Alphabet City, with a bookstore and restaurant. Trek previously restored the adjacent Bradberry Apartments.

“Quite honestly, Federal Street has really made a huge turnaround in terms of just the actual feel of walking down the street,” said Jeff Christman, 36, a resident of the nearby Mexican War Streets. “It would be awesome if they could finally do something on North (Avenue).”

Trek’s plans for the corner of North and Federal, which centered on three historic buildings, stalled for years over zoning and legal challenges. Trek originally planned to incorporate facades of the three buildings into a residential building, but a court challenge filed by several residents halted the project.

The Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority, which owned the buildings, last year determined they were a public safety hazard and had them demolished, clearing the way for Trek to proceed with new plans.

“It is about time, particularly for the neighbors of the North Side who have fought for the rebirth of this corner for so many years,” said Dan Gilman, Mayor Bill Peduto’s chief of staff. “We’ve been working closely with the developers and the community on a plan that meets the desires of the community and their vision, and we believe we’ve reached that moment. We’ve gotten a plan that doesn’t require any variances and this is a chance for that block of North to come back to a great main street business district.”

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