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New economic study points to rapid growth in Downtown Pittsburgh

Tom Fontaine
ptrlivarchitecture2051814
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Downtown buildings dwarf Mellon Square Sunday, May 11, 2014.

When it comes to economic and residential growth, the Golden Triangle has had the golden touch in recent years, with almost $800 million in development under construction and about twice that much planned.

A study released on Thursday predicts that trend will continue with explosive development of apartments, hotels and retail and high-end office space in Pittsburgh’s Greater Downtown, including the Triangle, North Shore, South Shore, Uptown, the Bluff and near Strip District as far northeast as 31st Street.

“We’re only experiencing the beginning of Downtown’s transformation,” said Jeremy Waldrup, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership.

The partnership produced the study, which looked at economic indicators in several key areas to evaluate Downtown’s vitality. It gave the results in a presentation at Union Trust Building — itself a symbol of Downtown’s revitalization.

Boston’s The Davis Companies bought the 11-story Grant Street landmark for $14 million at a sheriff’s sale in March. Founder and CEO Jonathan Davis is a Western Pennsylvania native who attended Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill. His mother lives here.

“It’s an asset right in the heart of the city, and we collectively believe in what’s going on in Pittsburgh. We like the growth, the dynamics, Google’s growth … it has a lot of drivers that we like to see in a market,” said Richard McCready, president of The Davis Companies.

McCready said the firm plans extensive renovations and will continue using lower floors for retail and office space. It has not decided what to do with upper floors that include the auditorium where Thursday’s presentation was held and the building’s signature stained-glass rotunda.

“Downtown has probably never seen this kind of vibrancy, not in decades. I’m very optimistic that our best days are ahead of us,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said.

Among the study’s findings, the vacancy rate for Class A office space in the Downtown area has plummeted from 14.2 percent in the first quarter of 2009 to 5.6 percent in the first quarter of this year. It’s home to about 113,000 salaried jobs — one-fifth of them workers younger than 30 and 57 percent of them making at least $40,000 a year.

Last year’s Downtown-area population of 12,343 is up 10.5 percent from 2010, census figures show. Apartment occupancy has remained steady at about 95 percent, even as rental rates soared 11 percent during two years. So-called conversion projects to remake former commercial space will add more than 500 units during the next year, the partnership said.

“It’s indicative of a national trend, but we’re seeing more of it in Pittsburgh,” Waldrup said of an increased appetite for city living, particularly among empty nesters with money and young professionals.

About 136,500 square feet of retail space is planned or under construction. So are about 1,500 hotel rooms.

Prior to taking office in January, Mayor Bill Peduto said he wanted to make neighborhood rebuilding a cornerstone of his administration and criticized former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl for using scarce grant money to subsidize Downtown development and not investing enough in struggling neighborhood business districts and declining residential districts.

No one at the Downtown event expressed concern about that apparent shift in philosophy. Peduto had been slated to speak at the partnership’s event, but he was unable to attend because of a scheduling conflict, a spokesman said.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or [email protected].

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