A pigeon flying over Market Square might not recognize its old roost.
Once a seedy urban acre of litter, vagrants and bus fumes, a piece of Pittsburgh’s past has regained its historic luster, thanks to its most recent $5 million renovation.
At a grand reopening in October, city officials unveiled a tranquil cobblestone piazza where shoppers and office workers can relax in the shade of elm and honey locust trees. Laptops and lattes have supplanted the panhandlers and pigeons. Restaurants offer Paris-style dining at sidewalk tables.
With the Three Rivers Arts Festival set to open Friday in nearby Point State Park, planners are hoping that more visitors to Downtown will discover the new Market Square.
Hollie Geitner, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership — a business association that partnered with the city on the renovation — is confident this urban redevelopment will stick.
“There’s videos being shot there,” she says. “There’s been everything from a wedding to the Day of Prayer.”
But the new Market Square is more than a glorified food court. Geof Comings, business development manager for the partnership, points out that it’s a legitimate neighborhood, thanks to the permanent residents in new developments such as Market Square Place, which includes the new YMCA.
“I remember going down there when it had the bars and Walt Harper’s Attic,” says Michael Kratsas, director of real estate and development for Primanti Bros, who are headquartered in the Square. “It was a destination point. It kind of got sterilized over the years. It dropped off and became a nuisance.”
Now, a blend of trendy bistros, historic businesses and coffee and sandwich shops dot the grid, along with upscale retailers such as Heinz Healey’s clothiers and the Nettleton Shop, which which sells men’s shoes and leather goods. New restaurants include NOLA on the Square, which features nouvelle creole cuisine, and Bella Sera Urban Trattoria.
Chris and Misty Marot of Florida recently toured Market Square while they were in Pittsburgh for a wedding. The couple, in their mid-30s, bypassed Starbucks to buy java at the historic Nicholas Coffee Co., which was founded in 1919.
“It was really cool. It was old, it was unique, it was real nice on the inside,” Chris Marot says,
“I think if you’re from out of town you prefer to go to a place that’s unique to Pittsburgh,” Misty Marot says.
Nick Nicholas, the third generation to run the Nicholas Coffee Co., has seen a number of changes to Market Square over the years.
“This is the third renovation since I moved back here from college,” he says. “I think they finally got it right this time. They closed the traffic to the buses. It’s more people-friendly now, having one big plaza instead of four quadrants.”
The next goal is to make Market Square a nightlife hub, which Nicholas says requires the perfect “critical mass” of restaurants. Nicholas says businesses in the Square may offer centralized valet parking. In late July, he and partner Jim Patrinos, owner of Primanti Bros., will open the Diamond Market Bar & Grill in the former Jenny Lee Bakery.
Market Square had its beginning in 1784, built on land that was given to the city by two grandsons of William Penn.
It was known as the Diamond, which is an archaic Scotch-Irish term for town square. In the late 1790s, the first Allegheny County Courthouse was built here. It included a tower whose bell tolled when George Washington died in 1799.
The square has hosted Steelers pep rallies, political protests and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, not to mention flash mobs and an annual gathering of zombies.
But it was also a haunt for drifters and drug users.
“We’ve seen it all here, the good, the bad and the ugly,” says Rick Faust, manager of the 141-year-old Original Oyster House, Pittsburgh’s oldest bar. “A little over five to seven years ago, the drugs were terrible.”
That began to change in 2006, when then-mayor Bob O’Connor initiated a crackdown on illegal activity. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala closed two nuisance bars and a barbershop he said was a front for drug dealing.
The renovation, by Dina Klavon Design Associates of the South Side, removed large planters that often concealed drug buys or served as beds. Curbs were eliminated, sidewalks widened and vehicular traffic rerouted to the perimeter of the square.
“It’s more wide open,” Faust says. “You can’t get away with that now.”
Market Square events
Thursdays in Market Square: Features organically grown vegetables, baked goods, eggs and frozen meats. There is also a concert at noon each week. 10 a.m.- 2 p.m. through Nov. 17
KidsPlay: Program for children and their parents includes games, interactive activities, book readings and special guests. Carnegie Library Reading Room, Forbes Avenue and Market Street. 10-11:30 a.m.Fridays through Aug. 19.
Tuesday Reading Room With the Carnegie Library : Find a bargain on used books by shopping the book cart at Forbes Avenue and Market Street from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Oct. 11.
Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest Qualifier: Fifteen men and women will compete in a qualifying heat for the all-you-can-eat contest. Noon Wednesday