Pittsburgh universities shift strategy after spending millions on property
The universities in Pittsburgh’s urban core are snapping up properties at a slower pace than a decade ago, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t building rapidly, a Tribune-Review analysis found.
The schools — Carnegie Mellon University, University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University, Point Park University, Chatham University and Carlow University — spent at least $102.2 million acquiring more than 35 acres of city land during the past decade, but their buying slowed dramatically in recent years as the institutions focused on renovating and building on their properties.
Only Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne spent money to expand their city campuses since 2013, records show.
“All universities — especially ones in urban centers where land is at a premium — feel the need to acquire, acquire and acquire,” said Neal Kessler, a campus planner and landscape architect with Detroit-based SmithGroupJJR.
“But we typically find that universities can accommodate almost all of the growth they’re anticipating on property they own already,” Kessler said. Combined, the six institutions enroll 65,000 students and employ 23,000 on nearly 400 city acres.
Carnegie Mellon spent a combined $8.1 million last year to buy four buildings and 50 parking spaces across from Central Catholic High School on Oakland’s Fifth Avenue. In the two years before that, CMU and Duquesne bought just five properties for a combined $1.9 million.
Point Park was bursting at the seams when it began acquiring buildings and parking lots in Downtown in the early 2000s. Its enrollment had recently surpassed 3,000 students, forcing it to rent classroom space on a semester-by-semester basis and residential space from Chatham University.
“That’s no way to run a university,” said Point Park President Paul Hennigan.
A decade ago, Point Park had eight buildings and the area surrounding it “was pretty depressed,” Hennigan said. That worked in Point Park’s favor when it started buying properties, allowing the university to afford property that it likely couldn’t afford today in the resurgent Golden Triangle, Hennigan said.
During the past decade, Point Park spent at least $26.6 million acquiring nearly four acres in Downtown, records show. It has 18 buildings and an enrollment approaching 4,000.
The acquisitions became part of the larger, $200 million-plus Academic Village initiative that Point Park announced in 2008, which included developing a student and convention center in a former YMCA; a park at the corner of Wood Street and Boulevard of the Allies; and a new, $74 million Pittsburgh Playhouse that’s scheduled to open along Forbes Avenue.
“It provides us with the physical space that we need for our academic mission,” Hennigan said.
Duquesne has spent at least $10.1 million acquiring more than 1.2 acres, most of it along Forbes and Fifth avenues below the original campus on the Bluff.
Timothy R. Austin, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Duquesne, said the university generally “bought buildings in poor states of repair and tried over time to return them to productive uses and make them visually appealing” to help breathe new life into the surrounding neighborhood.
With several of the properties, fronting along the busy Forbes and Fifth corridor helps Duquesne play a more active role in the community.
For example, second- and third-year law students at Duquesne who work at the Legal Education Center at 912-914 Fifth Ave. have provided 27,000 hours of free legal services to city residents since opening in 2013. Duquesne bought the building for $389,000 in 2011. It’s tax-exempt, but assessed at $390,000.
“If (the Legal Education Center) was in the middle of campus up on the hill, it wouldn’t get nearly as much business,” Austin said.
Carnegie Mellon has been the biggest buyer. It has spent at least $59.8 million acquiring more than seven acres during the past decade, including properties across from Central Catholic and ones to the west of South Neville street and south of Forbes.
It spent $25 million acquiring roughly three acres along Forbes in 2009. The following year, it paid $7.5 million for a former hospice at 4700 Fifth Ave. in 2010. It transformed the former hospice into the Residence on Fifth, a residence hall for 150 first-year students.
“A majority of the other properties have been used for office space and to accommodate the growing need for parking on campus,” spokeswoman Abby Simmons said.
The university is in the process of selecting a developer for a proposed office, hotel and retail complex on land it bought south of Forbes. It said last summer that the Indian information technology services firm Tata Consultancy Services would build an education and research facility on the site of a former Exxon gas station on Forbes. Tata donated $35 million to CMU last year.
Much of the property is tax-exempt, but properties worth millions of dollars in assessed value remain subject to city, Allegheny County and Pittsburgh Public Schools taxes, records show.
The city’s biggest academic institution, the University of Pittsburgh, made few deals by comparison. It paid $1 to the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh in 2008 for the 12.5-acre former Robinson Court property that would become home to Pitt’s baseball, softball, soccer and track facilities, records show.
It bought the former Concordia Club on O’Hara Street for $2.1 million in 2009 and, after $5.8 million in renovations, reopened it as the O’Hara Student Center. It acquired 315 Oakland Ave. for nearly $1.4 million in 2010; it’s now home to student housing.
“Most of our focus now has been on renovating and upgrading our existing facilities, not acquiring new ones,” Pitt spokesman John Fedele said.
Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or [email protected].