It’s no secret that Downtown Pittsburgh got clobbered by the pandemic, as working from home became more or less a permanent feature of so many people’s jobs. And it continues to be a challenging time for the region’s hub as the number of people coming Downtown rebounds but still remains below pre-pandemic levels.
But what’s surprising is how well Downtown actually managed to grow over the two-plus years. According to a report compiled by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership (which works to promote Downtown), the central core of Pittsburgh has proved to be resilient and adaptable.
Early on in the pandemic, when we were frantically (and as it turns out, mostly unnecessarily) disinfecting doorknobs, it seemed like big apartment buildings were in big trouble. But Downtown living has stayed attractive enough that occupancy is currently at 91%, and new apartments and condos keep being added at a steady pace.
It turns out that older office buildings can be redeveloped into attractive housing, particularly if they have some historic character.
More than 1,000 residential units are being added Downtown through the conversion of underutilized properties. One of those is the former GNC headquarters on Sixth Avenue, which will be converted to housing in 2022. The health and nutrition company is moving to 75 Hopper Place, a new building in the Strip District.
The former Easter Seals/PPG building on Fort Duquesne Boulevard — owned by Mark Cuban — is another long-vacant space that is going residential.
According to the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, there are 28 development projects underway in the Golden Triangle, representing $800 million in investment.
The report analyzes office building occupancy, parking garage utilization, bus ridership and bike share statistics, among other numbers, to arrive at its assessments of the economic health of Downtown.
Last year also saw the opening of 20 businesses Downtown, ranging from a beautiful new jazz club, Con Alma, to Five Iron Golf, a high-tech golf simulator in PPG Place, to Ensemble on Fifth, a co-retailing space featuring two-dozen local and regional small businesses.
It’s obviously been an interesting and challenging year,” Aimee Marshall, Con Alma’s general manager told us last year. “I’ve been in the restaurant business for quite some time and it’s been a challenge.”
The location across from Heinz Hall was too good to pass up, though.
“It’s the center of the Cultural District,” said Marshall. “I don’t think we could have found a better space, in terms of offering a live jazz venue with food and drinks.”
Restaurants continue to find Downtown attractive. The massive Sullivan’s Steakhouse opened in the U.S. Steel Tower and The Eagle Food and Beer Hall opened in the Eighth & Penn development in the Cultural District. Others include the acclaimed sushi/gin spot gi-jin — which was ranked in Yelp’s list of top 100 favorite restaurants by the site’s users. There’s also the Rebel Room in the new Industrialist Hotel — itself a stunning reuse of one of Downtown’s most attractive structures, the Arrott Building on Wood Street, an ornate Venetian-influenced landmark designed by famed architect Frederick J. Osterling.
Others include Adda Coffee & Tea House on Fifth Avenue (with a bigger Adda Bazaar to come later this year on Penn Avenue), De Fer Coffee & Tea inside Market Street Grocery, Slider Vibes and Market Exchange in Market Square, Sultan Doner Gyro on 6th Street, and Sushi Kim 2, which moved to Smithfield from the Strip.
In December, visitors returned to Market Square for the holidays at 89% of 2019 levels, and Cultural District visitors returned at 85% of 2019 levels, according to the report.
However, the report also notes that only about 36% of Downtown employees had returned to work in-person by December.
“The continued strength and resiliency of Downtown remains evident as we slowly emerge from the pandemic,” says President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership Jeremy Waldrup. “Our historic investments in office, transportation and the arts have created a strong foundation as we work grow the residential, retail and hospitality sectors.”
“Increasing the diversity of housing and retail will ensure the long term health of the Downtown economy. As the most connected and amenity rich place to do business, Downtown is well positioned to welcome returning office workers, while also creating more economic opportunity to strengthen our regional economy.”