The neon glow missing from the North Side for many years was back Wednesday night as the neighborhood celebrated the return of the Garden Theater — and shovels hitting dirt for the mixed-use apartment complex next door.
Except this time, it’s not a porn theater. Quite a few people were glad to see that go dark, actually.
The saga of the North Side’s Garden Theater and its rundown neighboring properties involved multiple mayors, multiple developers, multiple decades, multiple lawsuits, and multiple enraged neighbors — many of whom desperately wanted the sleazy “art” theater gone, and others who fought tooth-and-nail against everything proposed in its place (and, in particular, the large residential component next door). A fight by the Urban Redevelopment Authority with the Garden’s owners even went all the way to the state Supreme Court.
“It only took two years to build the stadium (Heinz Field),” former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy ruefully observed.
Murphy recalled as a kid growing up in the South Hills being warned by his mother when he got his driver’s license: “Don’t be home too late, and don’t go to the North Side.” Particularly this corner of Federal Street and W. North Avenue, known for its “bucket of blood” bars (like the Apache Lounge), named for the frequent fights that would inevitably break out there on the weekends.
The $21 million project, spearheaded by Trek Development Group and Q Development with help from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, was designed by PWWG Architects and is being built by Mistick Construction. It is expected to be completed by early 2023.
“Community development is difficult,” said Bill Gatti, president and CEO of Trek. “It’s often people with disparate viewpoints and different interests. And those interests collide at these figurative and literal intersections like Federal and North.”
The lighting of the Garden’s iconic sign was timed to coincide with the groundbreaking for 6 W. North next-door. The five-story, 50,000-square-foot building will feature 46 residential units, clean, modern lines and ground-level retail space. The rental units range from 400 to 1,150 square feet.
Built in 1914, the Garden Theater adds ready-to-be-filled retail/restaurant space with three studio apartments above, and a distinctive white Beaux Arts-style terra-cotta facade, first restored in 2013. Its run as an X-rated theater began in 1974 and ended in 2007.
It’s bookended on the other side by the equally painstakingly redeveloped Masonic Hall, now home to a new restaurant (40 North), a superb bookstore specializing in translations and international authors and City of Asylum (a nonprofit refuge for persecuted writers from all over the world, from Venezuela to Iran), and a concert venue, with apartments above. Behind that is the 16-unit Bradberry Building, — designed by Frederick Osterling in 1902 — now restored into 16 apartments.
Behind 6 W. North is the Morton House, a much smaller three-story adaptive reuse/restoration of a Second Empire-style commercial building, with eight apartments.
In all, the Garden Theater block’s full build-out will bring 57 new residential units to one of the most prominent, and blighted, corners on the North Side, close to Allegheny General Hospital and across from Allegheny Commons Park, itself undergoing multiple rejuvenation and restoration projects.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and numerous community organizations gathered at the Alphabet City/40 North Space for the celebration.
Peduto said he and Murphy were mayors “of two very different cities,” as Murphy still had to deal with the lingering economic and demographic fallout from the great steel bust of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“One that was on the operating table, having a heart attack, with an exit wound and suffering many diseases,” noted Peduto. “And another one that was on the verge of being able to rise up once again. This project may exemplify that more than any other development we’ve had the opportunity to work together on.”
Peduto and Murphy agreed that working with Trek Development was one of the best experiences they both had as mayor.
“Because some developers get it,” said Peduto. “They go back to the community and back to the drawing board. And they say, ‘OK, what can we do to enhance preservation? … They do the hard work, and the community comes together, and that’s how something like this happens.”
Fitzgerald recalled what longtime Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Brian O’Neill, a proud North Sider, told him about 20 years ago. “Brian says, ‘I’m a proud North Sider — a neighborhood of the future — and it always will be.’
“Well, the future is now.”