By Mark Belko for Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
May 10, 2016
At one time, trains and barges converged on a massive South Side cargo warehouse to deliver the goods and supplies that helped fuel an early 20th century Pittsburgh.
Now a local developer is preparing a major overhaul of the historic old terminal with its thick floors, sturdy walls and riverfront prominence in hopes of attracting those shaping a 21st century city.
After finalizing the purchase of River Walk Corporate Centre last week, McKnight Realty Partners plans to spend tens of millions of dollars to convert vacant floors into creative office space and to turn an asphalt street that runs through the complex to the Monongahela River into a public green space it has dubbed the “High Line.”
It also intends to complete the missing link to the South Side riverfront trail that now detours around the complex, even as it adds 650 parking spaces.
McKnight bought the real estate from Pittsburgh Terminal Properties. The price has not been disclosed.
The Downtown developer sees the terminal project as its most ambitious to date. This from a company that transformed the iconic former Gimbel’s department store Downtown into the Heinz 57 Center office complex and rehabbed the Grant Building on Grant Street.
“This is the most exciting project we’ve worked on in a long time, maybe since Gimbel’s,” said Izzy Rudolph, a McKnight principal. “This is a building that needs a true transformation.”
Finished in 1906, the old terminal appears to be two buildings with a street running between them. But it is actually one built on a hillside. What typically would be seen as street level to a visitor is really the third floor of the complex. The terminal lies off East Carson Street between South Third and South Fourth streets.
When first completed, the terminal was considered the largest warehouse between New York City and Chicago, Mr. Rudolph said.
It was built to accommodate street traffic, barges and trains — as many as five at one time, according to the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. Visitors can still see old train tracks running into one of the bays at ground level.
George Westinghouse was one of the original investors in the terminal. It was designed by Charles Bickel, who also was the architect behind the original Kaufmann’s department store, the Granite Building Downtown and the South Side Market House. Two brickyards took a year to make enough bricks to build the terminal.
In addition to the main terminal, the complex features a powerhouse building overlooking the river and a 9-foot-wide “skinny” building at its entrance that apparently was built to create the illusion of a “grand entrance” into the complex, Mr. Rudolph said.
Warehouse became offices
Designed originally as a transfer point and storage warehouse for goods and products, the terminal has since evolved into an office complex measuring 868,000 square feet. It is now nearly half vacant and will be two-thirds empty by the end of the month.
McKnight plans to turn the vacant 60,000-square-foot floors into creative office space, with lots of open space. It will keep historic elements such as the exposed brick and beams, and the thick concrete floors strong enough to hold tanks, Mr. Rudolph said.
“Young people want creative office space and there’s not a lot of it [in Pittsburgh],” he said.
The company also hopes to keep existing tenants, which include the Green Building Alliance and Friends of the Riverfront.
McKnight believes one thing that has held back the complex is the limited parking in and around the facility, about 200 spaces in all. It will address that by adding 650 spaces in the building’s bottom floors.
But the centerpiece of the rehabilitation is the High Line. McKnight plans to rip up the asphalt drive, sometimes known as Terminal Way, and “make it the open public green space it’s screaming out to be,” Mr. Rudolph said.
The developer will install LED lighting, benches and other amenities to upgrade the space, which ends on a deck overlooking the river with views of the Liberty Bridge and the city skyline. McKnight sees the space as a potential venue for farmers markets, concerts and other events.
“We want this to be a public asset,” Mr. Rudolph said.
Making room for bikes
The developer also intends to create a “bike-centric” environment at the river level, with the connection to the trail, more green space, and a place to rent and service bicycles.
For McKnight, the redevelopment represents a challenge unlike those it has dealt with at Gimbel’s, the Grant Building and the rehab of the Henry W. Oliver Building.
“This is something totally different. This is different in every way. It’s the most Pittsburgh project we’ve ever done,” Mr. Rudolph said.
McKnight is seeking a $10 million state redevelopment capital assistance grant to help fund the work. It also is looking for help from the city Urban Redevelopment Authority for the public riverfront upgrades.
Gerard McLaughlin, executive managing director of Newmark Grubb Knight Frank in Pittsburgh, said the property has potential despite being a “little bit off the track” with no direct link to Downtown. He noted that office space in and near Downtown is still very tight.
“I think it’s a great property. It’s one that if you have the money to put into it to make it a Class B-plus office space, I think it can be very successful,” he said, adding, “The building has great bones.”
Mark Belko: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1262.