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Downtown Pittsburgh Shifting to Full-Fledged Neighborhood

Deanna Garcia
90.5 WESA

It’s often said Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods. There are the bustling neighborhoods of Oakland and Squirrel Hill, the struggling neighborhood of Homewood, and the transitioning neighborhoods in between. Then there’s a shadow neighborhood. Some people call it the Golden Triangle, some call it the business district, and others call it home.

“It’s not just a thoroughfare for the buses, or somewhere where you go to your office from 9 to five, but I actually live here and love it a lot,” said Gina Mucciolo.

Mucciolo has lived downtown for about five years – the first three in student housing, then two years in an apartment. Though there is an ongoing perception that nobody actually lives downtown – Mucciolo isn’t the only one living there. According to the Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, Jeremy Waldrup, that perception is pretty outdated.

Credit Deanna Garcia/90.5 WESA News
Gina Mucciolo has lived Downtown for five years

“We’ve had a 30% growth in residents in the last eight years; there are approximately 8,200 people who call downtown home. It’s becoming more of a neighborhood. You’re not going to drive through and see a picket fence, a back yard – you will likely see a stroller these days, but it’s not a typical Pittsburgh neighborhood,” he said.

Lack of Amenities

As the city continues what officials refer to as its “Third Renaissance” downtown continues to shift. After years of being mainly a business destination, retailers and residents are struggling to find a balance. Eve Picker began converting vacant space into lofts downtown in the late nineties.

“Pittsburgh is pretty slow to embrace change, maybe that’s changing now, but certainly then it was a very different thing for people to think about,” she said.  

Picker said right now, as a resident, there are some obstacles as far as lack of amenities such as dry cleaners. But overall, she said she can get everything she needs there – including basic food items like milk. Though there’s no grocery store downtown, places like CVS have small grocery sections. But here’s where a divide exists.

Credit Deanna Garcia/90.5 WESA News
Some places such as CVS are offering grocery items, but staples can be pricey and sometimes out of date.

“I typically don’t shop at CVS for any sort of grocery items,” said Gina Mucciolo, “mainly because they tend to be marked up, so they’re actually a little more expensive then I actually have to go to the grocery store anyway to get my essentials.”

Mucciolo says she’d like to see an affordable grocery store downtown.

Income Disparities

She and Picker live at different ends of the income spectrum but both live downtown. The affordability of living there is something that is being debated beyond food and amenities. Currently there are two affordable housing buildings downtown - The May Building and Midtown Towers. According to Mucciolo, who lives in one of those buildings, they are always full.

“I remember when I had found about the building from my friend, I had to apply about 9 months to a year before I was accepted into the building because there is a very long waiting list.”

Currently there are about 340 residential units under construction below Grant Street and another 1,750 are in the conceptual phase. But, they are not affordable housing units, which is something Eve Picker said she’d like to see change.

“I wish the administration would set its mind to doing some more affordable projects, making them happen because I feel like in some ways it’s becoming a really high-end enclave and I think a neighborhood should be diverse and offer housing for everyone,” she said.

That might not be an easy ideal to meet. Downtown Partnership’s Waldrup said there are several factors that play into the lack of affordable housing, the biggest is funding.

Credit Deanna Garcia/90.5 WESA News
There are residential units for sale or rent, but most start in the $900 a month range, and our out of reach for many middle-income individuals and families.

“There’s not a lot of money at the federal level, which was a very key supporter of your larger affordable housing projects a few years ago, that money has since dried up, but it’s something that we’re definitely thinking about.”

Expanding Downtown

Waldrup said what he sees for the future is a larger downtown that better connects with adjoining neighborhoods like the Hill and Strip Districts. He said there will likely be more affordable housing options there. But added that developers must tread lightly.

“We don’t want to grow too quickly, we don’t want to overbuild. We want to make sure we have a good sense of demand for both the housing and commercial stock.”

For now, Waldrup said Downtown is doing pretty well. According to CBRE, a real estate services firm, Downtown Pittsburgh’s occupancy rate in 2012 was higher than cities such as Minneapolis, Cleveland, Baltimore and Indianapolis. Rental rates are near the top of the same list.

“From a housing and office perspective, it’s tight,” said Waldrup, “our occupancy rates are well into the 90s. From the retail perspective, I think people think there’s a lot of retail vacancies out there but there really aren’t. A lot of the vacancies you see are buildings that are in transition, buildings that are for sale, so there’s a lack of interest in getting those leased out.”

Credit CBRE
A report from CBRE shows Downtown occupancy rates

The Future Looks Bright

Waldrup and Picker say interest in investing downtown is high, with no slowdown in sight. But, in order to continue to grow, all agreed transportation must be addressed. Waldrup said buses clogging the streets and traffic congestion need to be examined, along with methods to maximize transit between Downtown and surrounding areas.

“Because that’s probably the next frontier from the retail perspective – making a seamless connection to the Strip District, better connecting the commercial districts of Downtown to the North Shore because that’s a short walk over a bridge, an easy ride on the bus, a free ride on the T.”

While work is still being done, Waldrup said years of investment from the public and private sectors has gone a long way in changing downtown and drawing people from all over to the area for things such as ice skating at PPG Place or dining in Market Square. Still, officials are trying to fight a notion held for years.

“A lot of folks have these misperceptions of downtown. 'I haven’t been down there for 10 years, but I know what it’s like.' I would challenge that, I don’t think that you do,” said Waldrup.

As for the future, he said the downtown of old, with big department stores, will never return, but hopes for the area include more small, unique retailers. Officials also hope the Cultural District will continue to draw people downtown. Talk of a grocery store downtown continues, following the closure of Rosebud Fine Food Market in 2010, though no definitive plans are in place.