Photo by Neil Strebig
A current look at the barren halls of Nova Place inside Allegheny Center, site of the former mall.
By Neil Strebig
Bitter winds howl through a desolate concourse. The revolving door at Two Allegheny Center used to be crammed with businessmen in suits now stands silent, mirrored by cardboard borders. The silence continues as you enter a vacant hallway where Zayre’s used to be.
A few decades’ prior, vegetation hung from the second floor canopy as if the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were right here in Northside.
That vegetation is gone, leaving a mall covered in dust, filled to the brim with stale air; an acting reminder that Allegheny Center was on life support.
That was until Faros Properties signed a $100 million check to purchase the 1.2 million-square-foot space. Rebranded as Nova Place, New York-based company has dynamic plans on turning what has become somewhat of an eye sore to local residents into an attraction.
“When the mall came in, it was ‘the mall.’ Period. Sort of wiped out everything the Northside had and we’ll never get back,” Councilwoman Darlene Harris said. “Allegheny Center didn’t really help and it hurt East Ohio Street. It hurt businesses. It took the heart out of the Northside.”
Allegheny Center and the Northside used to be a destination.
Now, a few guests make their way through the mall, past an empty bed of soil, covered in foam packing peanuts, heading downstairs into the Eco Café, one of the few businesses left in the former Allegheny Center Mall.
“For Northsiders, it is a non-entity. It is there. We know it is there, it is like this big chunk of space that has little impact on the adjacent neighborhoods. I’m thinking that Faros is going to really spruce up Allegheny Center,” John Canning, Allegheny City Society vice president and board member, said.
Before ALCOA and Allegheny Associates proposed transformative plans in 1961, Allegheny Center was a cultural hub in Allegheny City during the mid to late 19th century. At that time the area was a centralized collection of businesses and homes separated by “lots” and “towns.”
Nearby Ridge Avenue became known as “Millionaire’s Row,” where some of the wealthiest families in Pittsburgh lived, while West Park Commons became the first public park west of the Allegheny Mountains in 1867.
As the city grew and expanded, new roads, bridges and businesses sprouted up across the city. The culture of the Northside changed from natural socio-economic progression.
By the early 1950s, the area had become a congested commercial space hidden behind the smog and factory-laced shoreline of the Allegheny River. Soon the city of Pittsburgh, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and city council began to look into restoring it.
In 1952, the City Planning Commission in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Regional Planning Association undertook a socio-economic study, publishing the “North Side Study” in 1954.
With a Northside population of 65,450, Allegheny Center highlighted the greatest density of residency with 1,208 housing units in 102 acres, making Allegheny Center a target for commercialization.
Retail potential showed 70 percent of residents could use more shopping options, projecting $61 million in potential sales; furniture making up 76 percent of sales, according to the study.
In 1961, ALCOA was the leading partner of Allegheny Associates with a four-year, $85 million project that would renovate 62 acres with a massive focus on residential housing.
“Initially, the housing was substandard or a little bit intermediate,” Canning said. “But none of that was acceptable housing. Part of that was for a variety of reasons. They were designed for a different time. And I think we lose sight of that.”
According to the original plan, 28 acres of the acquired land was to be dedicated for housing. The goal was to double the population in Allegheny Center by improving the standard of living, which would also improve the perception of the Northside. The intentions were to make Allegheny City and the Northside a fresh, start-up neighborhood.
“When they built Foster Square, that was their model for this,” Canning said of the Allegheny Center housing development.
Allegheny Center Mall
The redesign of Allegheny Center happened with the opening of the mall in 1965. Sears came in. Zayres swooped in.
Suddenly, Allegheny Mall became one of the largest retail areas in the states, 50 percent larger than the next largest project in Lakewood, California. It was a hustling, bustling and booming hub for commercial businesses but, it was relatively short-lived.
Ross Park Mall opened nearby in the North Hills in 1986. Another wave of housing and malls were springing up all over Cranberry. The original plan for residential expansion was delayed and nearly 2,200 houses never came. The mall’s positive impact and the angelic properties it was intended to bring to the community stalled before getting started.
“I believe the mall failed because different people moved away from the Northside,” Bill Gandy, owner of Allegheny City Historic Gallery on East Ohio Street, said.
The mall sustained moderate success into the early 1980s, courtesy of 40-plus stores and the novelty of being one of the first environment-controlled malls.
Despite the thermostat kickshaw and the annual hosting of Fall Flower Shows, the commercial potential was at risk, it needed a jolt.
Instead it got a sedative. The mall’s premiere store, Sears, was bought out of its lease by Ross Park Mall in 1986.
“Sears was a very important anchor tenant,” Canning said of the loss. “The mall never really recovered from the loss of Sears.”
Once the main attraction left, the glamour and glitz faded away, residents began to see Allegheny Center in a different light.
“As a preservationist at heart, I always find it painful to hear Allegheny City was razed when Allegheny Center was formed,” Terri Glueck, Innovation Works communication director, said, “And I’m sure that was a huge loss at the time and many people still probably feel that loss of the community that was there.”
Without retail, the mall began to see a number of businesses dissolve. ALCOA and investors sold its investment to the California-based Penn-Cal in 1981, and by 1994 Penn-Cal began turning Allegheny Center into a business hub. By that time the mall had less than a dozen tenants.
The next two decades made it increasingly more apparent how defunct the mall had been.
The traffic circle surrounding the mall, and the four-lane highway that decapitated the Federal and East Ohio Street connections effectively doomed Allegheny Center. The parking garage continued to be a fiscal gash. A problem that former Allegheny Center official James Krasne called a “sinkhole for money,” in a 1994 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story.
The commercial paradise formerly praised as one of the largest indoor malls in America, had now become an island surrounded by red ink.
“In Pittsburgh it was a symbol of what didn’t work,” Glueck said.
Pittsburgh as a whole endured some of its worst economic turmoil during the late 1980s and early 90s with the decline of the steel industry. Allegheny Center just happened to be a landmark representation of it all.
“The mall was the best thing in my childhood, but most destructive thing to the Northside,” Gandy said
Nova Place Arrives
Today, the proposed $100 million renovation is underway. The office space throughout Nova Place will be restored, reimagined, modernized, and most importantly, filled.
“We’re taking what was a failed development and attempt at 1960s urban renewal, which was really destructive to Allegheny City because it bulldozed the entire thing and the community, and trying to reintroduce that through our own redevelopment lens, through the fabric of the community,” Jeremy Leventhal, Managing Partner of Faros Properties, said.
Described as a “belief in where Pittsburgh is going,” by Mayor Bill Peduto during the May 2015 announcement ceremony, Faros has sparked the imagination of not just the Mayor, but all of Northside.
Almost immediately after Faros took over the properties and announced its vision, Parkview Apartments went from 50 percent capacity to 100 percent. The once arid space is now being filled with young professionals and growing families. A fresh indication the scenery in Allegheny Center is changing.
“That renaissance has been ignited. We’re just kind of a catalyst for it,” Gretchen D’Arti, Faros Properties marketing director, said. “We’re fueling the fire.”
Long-time tenant, PNC Bank, located at the west end of the mall, resigned a 10-year lease.
“[There’s] so much going on here. So much investment. [Faros] saw potential,” D’Arti said.
Innovation Works, one of Nova Place’s first tenants, located in Nova Tower 2 is a prime example of the optimism now flowing through the once barren concourse.
“We have loved it,” Glueck said, “Our team loves being on the Northside. We love being a part of a neighborhood.”
Innovation Works serves as a bridge between mentors and investors for small-business in order to help launch their upstart ideas and business plans. Glueck who described Innovation Works’ inception into Nova Place as “this fluky Pittsburgh connection,” with Leventhal, shared her excitement for the proximity to Downtown Pittsburgh and the Strip District, two important locations with positive impacts on their business model.
Innovation Works is just one example of the rapidly evolving landscape of the Allegheny Center. Radiant Hall, a creative outlet that offers rentable studio space for aspiring artists and creators has also settled in at the Nova Place.
Nova Place is currently at 70 percent capacity, including over a 1,000 residents and nearly 4,000 workers, according to Jeremy Kronman, Executive Vice President of CBRE, who manages property development with Faros.
Kronman compared Nova Place to tech-center Bakery Square.
“Bakery Square lit up East Liberty,” Kronman said of the developing tech hub. “Bringing this project back will do the same thing here.”
Replacing the former location of Woolworth, Alloy 26 will be a 50,000-square-foot business incubator that is expected to open later this year. The incubator will hold 300 occupants and upon its completion will be the largest collaborative workspace in Western Pa.
“We’re going to change the dynamic of the property based on the types of smaller uses we’re putting on,” Leventhal said. “Beyond that we’re interested in working with all sorts of companies whether it is a large company or a small company.”
While the current businesses are helping clear the fog around Faros’ proposals and business landscape, there are still concerns for the Northeast property juggernaut to answer.
“Urban renewal interrupted the street grid and surrounded Allegheny Center with a one-way, four lane moat road,” Mark Falta, Executive Director of the Northside Leadership Conference, said, “[It] cut off the interior to vehicular traffic from a neighborhood. That is something we want to fix.”
Falta’s concern over the center’s congested and confusing roundabout is a pressing issue for a complex he described as needing “some life blown back into it.”
There’s no doubting the negative impact the initial design of traffic patterns had on the original Allegheny Center’s demise.
With Federal Street underpass and Alloy 26 still under construction, there’s concern over if anything will actually change for pedestrians and visitors. However, positive strides have been made. As Falta describes Faros having a “very healthy relationship” with the NSLC.
“Leventhal has been very helpful with the community,” Councilwoman Harris said. “I think they’re going to be a great neighbor.”
All three commented positively on the progress their collective teams and the city have made towards improved navigation around the complex. While there is still no timetable on reconstructing the four-lane road into two-way traffic, the Federal Street underpass construction will be completed shortly and Faros plans on adding more lighting to the walkways, effectively improving pedestrian traffic and safety.
“For the most part, everybody would say that there is merit to improving the vehicular traffic in the way,” Leventhal said. “The four-lane highway around Allegheny Center is not conducive to the scale of the community. It is not commuter friendly, it’s not pedestrian friendly it just does not make sense. We are trying to improve that circulation, and make it more appropriate for the community.”
Along with traffic improvements, Faros is working on putting together a number of upcoming events for the year, according to Leventhal.
Nova Place has already hosted a summer food truck outing and will again host Maker Faire, a creative collaboration described by Glueck as a “seamless integration between the Children’s Museum and Nova Place.”
Codefest recently announced its opening night event will be at Nova Place. In Leventhal’s mind changing the perception of Allegheny Center is “critical.”
“We’re trying to, through the type of improvements we’re making, the type of uses we’re putting in the technology companies, through food uses we’re putting in and create a sense of culture, a sense of community. And reintroduce it as an asset to the community,” Leventhal said.
In 18 months Nova Place will be approximately 89 percent completed, according to Leventhal.
“We don’t need large tenants to make our project successful. We’re not reliant on one tenant to make or break the project,” Leventhal said.
Back in 1978, the Northside Civic Development Council called the Northside, “one of Pittsburgh’s best kept secrets.” In 2016, many Pittsburghers still believe that to be the case.
“[Nova Place] adds to the vibrancy of the Northside as a whole,” Fatla said. “The more activity there is the more people there are that call Allegheny Center their home, either to live there or to work there, the better for everybody.”
Revitalization can be a slow process, and Allegheny Center has been quiet for a long time, but maybe it’s time to start talking about where it is going and not where it’s been.
A different version of this story was published online March 24 before interviews from Councilwoman Darlene Harris, Jeremy Leventhal and Jeremy Kronman were conducted.
This version appears in the April 2016 print edition.