Is There Room for Preservation amidst Pittsburgh’s Development?

It seems like almost weekly a new article is published branding Pittsburgh as “the next Portland” or “the new hot city for Millennials”. While a lot of the hype is exaggerated, there is no doubt Pittsburgh is on the rise. So with all the investment and development going on around the city, how can preservation play a role?

Money from public and private sources is being invested in multiple Pittsburgh neighborhoods. Neighborhoods that were once deemed undesirable are now seeing millions of public and private dollars flowing in for new development. With all of this investment for new construction, is there room for preservation? I believe there is and I believe it is our job (as preservationists) to keep the developers and the government accountable for using some of that money towards historic preservation.

One example of a development that capitalized on a historic Pittsburgh building was a recent YPA happy hour destination. The Ace Hotel on S. Whitfield Street in the East Liberty neighborhood was once a YMCA. Built in the early 1900’s, the Ace Hotel franchise purchased the building in 2006 and completed an extensive renovation. The building has been restored to its original glory, with a few minor adaptations: A bar and restaurant now occupy the entrance and the gym now holds dance parties as opposed to high school basketball games. An over $20 million dollar investment, the Ace Hotel leveraged tax credits, grant money, and private money to restore the boutique hotel. While a valid argument can be made about the benefit of the Ace Hotel for the existing East Liberty residents, I know I would much rather see a historic building repurposed rather than bleak new construction erected or another building left to deteriorate.

Braddock sits just outside the City of Pittsburgh in the Mon Valley. While Mon Valley towns like Braddock have not seen the kind of renaissance that has occurred in places like East Liberty, there is much potential for a resurgence. Businesses like the Brew Gentleman and Studebaker Metals have chosen to locate their business along the main corridor, Braddock Avenue. There are many champions in the Braddock neighborhood, from the local block watch members up to the Mayor, who are working to bring investment to Braddock while improving the lives of current residents.

One large accomplishment for the Braddock neighborhood was the redevelopment the former UPMC Hospital site. UPMC was closed in 2009 and left Braddock with a large vacant building, a loss of jobs, and without medical services in the neighborhood. Through a partnership between Allegheny County, TREK Development, Mon Valley Initiative (a local non-profit), over $30 million was committed to provide affordable housing and commercial space on the former Hospital site and in the surrounding area. While the two new apartment complexes and one commercial building were new construction, they chose to renovate one historic structure, the Free Press Building. What was once 4 historic structures along Braddock Avenue was restored to create 7 commercial spaces and 7 affordable and market rate apartments. This investment not only provided housing, jobs and potential for new businesses, it invested in preserving Braddock’s historic past.

Every Pittsburgh neighborhood is different. One main way their differences can be seen is in the architecture and buildings that occupy the neighborhood. With all the investment flowing into Pittsburgh, we need to remember to cherish and value Pittsburgh’s part. Preserving Pittsburgh’s historic structures is what will help keep Pittsburgh unique. If we do not work to preserve Pittsburgh historic buildings that differentiate our city from others, what prevents us from turning into Portland?