Planners see potential in a revamped Mellon Square

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA), 2014-07-21

July 21 -- Could Mellon Square become the next Market Square ?

While it's no European-style piazza, some believe the area around the newly restored park could be primed to become one of Downtown's next hot spots for restaurants and retail.

"I see it becoming the next great Downtown destination," said Herky Pollock , executive vice president of the CBRE real estate firm.

Only a few years ago, the Smithfield Street corridor between Fifth and Liberty avenues that includes Mellon Square appeared to be ready for last rites.

The Saks Fifth Avenue department store had closed, the Henry W. Oliver building next door was 70 percent vacant, and the former Lord & Taylor department store and the James H. Reed office building were empty.

Today it's a different story.

The upper floors of the Oliver building are being converted into an Embassy Suites hotel. Lord & Taylor is now a PNC Bank call center with about 700 employees, and the James Reed building is being turned into an upscale 249-room Hotel Monaco . Saks is being redeveloped for retail and parking, and the upper half of the former Alcoa building is becoming apartments.

Add to it the rehabbed square and Mayor Bill Peduto's interest in making Smithfield a "grand boulevard of Pittsburgh " filled with small shops and boutiques, and it's easy to see why some think better days are ahead for the corridor.

"If you fast-forward 18 months to two years from now, the whole Mellon Square corridor will be unrecognizable given all of the redevelopment going on, in and around the square," Mr. Pollock predicted.

David Glickman , director of retail services for the Newmark Grubb Knight Frank real estate firm, believes Market Square , with its piazza and teeming restaurant scene, is unique in Downtown, but he sees the potential for Smithfield to generate as much, if not more, retail.

"I can see it being just as much of a destination but in a different way. Market Square is basically an area to hang out, see events and eat. You can't really compare it to Smithfield and Wood [streets], which are more corridors, but if the right streetscapes are done and the roads are paved and made attractive, [ Smithfield ] will attract more retail. It's not a matter of if; it definitely will," he said.

Mr. Pollock said he is negotiating with several "marquee" restaurants that are interested in the Saks redevelopment, which will feature 25,000 square feet of retail space on Smithfield and Fifth Avenue. They are among five or six restaurants looking at or negotiating for space near the Mellon Square area, he said.

The Davis Companies, the new Boston -based owner of the Union Trust Building on Grant Street , is preparing a redevelopment plan for the property, with one its goals to revive its first-floor retail space, most of which now is vacant.

Part of the building is at the south end of Mellon Square , and the new retail could provide another spark for the corridor, Mr. Pollock said.

"The Davis Companies has very ambitious plans for the overall redevelopment of the Union Trust Building , and we are about to embark on both office and retail plans that will forever reshape that building," he said.

Mr. Pollock also reported substantial interest from retailers in the former Office Depot space on Smithfield in the Heinz 57 building, the former Gimbels department store. At one time, discount fashion retailers such as T.J. Maxx and Marshalls were eyeing it.

Oxford Development Co. is mulling whether to rehabilitate its existing office building at 441 Smithfield or build a new high-rise. With either option, about 12,000 to 15,000 square feet of street-level retail space will be available.

Near Mellon Square , the 24,860-square-foot building that housed the former Smithfield Cafe for decades sold last month for $900,000 to 635 Smithfield Street LLC , a New York City investment group. Elizabeth Judge , a Realtor involved in the sale, said she's not sure what the new owners intend to do with the building but expects the first floor will be dedicated to retail or a restaurant.

John Valentine , executive director of the Pittsburgh Downtown Community Development Corp. , has counted at least 14 vacant spaces on Smithfield that could play host to retailers or restaurants.

He believes the corridor's revival hinges on Mr. Peduto's plans to restore the street, bring in regional retail, upgrade sidewalks and lighting and make other improvements.

"I think once the mayor implements his plan for Smithfield being a shopping destination, I think the potential for Smithfield is enormous," he said.

Izzy Rudolph , project manager for McKnight Realty Partners , which owns the Oliver and Heinz 57 buildings, said the Mellon Square rehab already is having an impact. A year ago, prospective office tenants at the Oliver Building , which overlooks the square, did not want to be on the same side as the park, as it was still under construction. That has since changed.

"Everybody wants to be near the park now. It's beautiful," he said.

Like Mr. Pollock , he believes great things are ahead for the area. "It's going to be the magnet in the center [of Downtown]," he said.

Some predict Wood Street also will become more retail-centric in the future. Rich Beynon , president of the Beynon & Co. real estate firm, said a lot of restaurants and retailers now want to be in or near Market Square and that Wood Street can benefit from that.

"We're starting to see it as a secondary location because of the demand. You just can't get into the square anymore," he said.

Adding to Wood Street's potential prominence is the fact that Point Park University and the cultural district anchor its two ends, he said. The construction of the 33-story Tower at PNC Plaza high-rise between Fifth and Forbes avenues and the Gardens at Market Square mixed-use development on Forbes also will enhance it.

Wood already is seeing signs of improvement, with Eat'n Park planning to open a Hello Bistro in the Italian Sons and Daughters of America building on Forbes. The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation is marketing first-floor retail space in two renovated buildings across the street.

Mr. Pollock said one thing that could hold Wood Street back is the limited availability of additional retail space in the corridor. He said the new PNC building essentially eliminated three blocks of retail. The new skyscraper will have minimal retail.

"In my opinion, PNC missed an opportunity to further enhance Wood Street given [its]lack of attention to retail in [its] new building," he said.

That's one reason Mr. Pollock sees Smithfield as better situated for a retail renaissance. For Jack Cohen , owner of S.W. Randall Toyes and Giftes on Smithfield , it can't come soon enough.

While his business has been good, he said others have struggled and the street has long been overlooked.

Redevelopment "could only help. It can't hurt," said Mr. Pollock .

Mark Belko : or 412-263-1262.


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