There was a time when the East End of Pittsburgh was a hub for industrial innovation — the diversified industrial giant Rockwell International and Mine Safety Appliances (MSA) were located there, as were Emerson Electric and Chromalox.
All of those companies and the thousands of jobs they created eventually left, and only the massive brick factories and offices remained, vacant and forlorn.
Now, a 24-acre property in North Point Breeze is slowly transforming into 800,000 square feet of modern offices, advanced manufacturing, restaurants and retail across an eight-building campus. The industrial buildings are being repurposed as Class A, tech-flex and affordable office space.
But the project has remained low-key, until now. After more than six years of assembling properties, and trying out a number of different names, Rockwell Park Development has decided to simply call it Rockwell Park.
“My father worked at Rockwell in that building in the 1960s,” says Jason Stewart, managing director of JLL, which is handling the office leasing. “Here we are repopulating Pittsburgh’s industrial past, with Pittsburgh’s research-based new economy.”
The perfect anchor tenant for Rockwell Park is already lined up: Pittsburgh startup M*Modal, which uses speech recognition and AI to help doctors streamline their cumbersome documentation processes. M*Modal was acquired by Minnesota industrial giant 3M (which is perhaps best-known now for making N95 masks). The company is moving from Forbes and Murray in Squirrel Hill into 53,000 square feet of space (out of 142,000) at 7514 Thomas Blvd. in Rockwell Park.
“We have worked hard to create….a tenant experience that intrigues innovative companies,” says Al Lardo, a principal with Rockwell Park Development, the project’s developer.
Other tech tenants include established startups such as BirdBrain Technologies — whose educational robots teach children programming skills in more than 40 countries — and Near Earth Autonomy, which is working on an autonomous, self-flying helicopter.
Adaptive reuse of old buildings takes work, but those buildings have a sort of character — both in the materials used and craftsmanship — that’s not easy to replicate.
“It’s a level of authenticity you just can’t find a new construction,” says Stewart.
There’s no shortage of drama at the site, either. That’s supplied by the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama, which also has space in the development. There, it has room for stages and sets and cameras that would be hard to find on CMU’s campus.
JLL is handling the office leasing and CBRE is handling retail leasing. Indovina Associates Architects came up with the design for M*Modal’s building. The project is being done in phases, and the first phase is already complete. The entire project along Thomas Boulevard, Penn Avenue, and North Lexington Street will cost “upwards of $80 million,” notes Stewart.
Its main draw for the general public is the long-lived East End Food Co-op, a cooperatively-owned grocery store and purveyor of healthy grab-and-go food. As part of the project, Rockwell Park Development bought the building that houses the co-op. The area is also known to many Pittsburghers as being home to Construction Junction, the nonprofit hub dedicated to the sustainable reuse of building materials. That space isn’t owned by Rockwell Development, but the company likes having Construction Junction as a neighbor.
“We embraced the Construction Junction; we think it’s again, another, authentic, institutional destination for Pittsburghers,” says Stewart.
It’s no secret that the pandemic has forced companies to reassess what they need as far as office space goes. So the uniqueness of this location — near Google at booming Bakery Square, with the city’s universities close — is a major attraction. And the whole site is within walking distance of thousands of homes.
Currently, there are 700-800 people employed within the complex but Stewart estimates that it could have 2,300-2,500 employees after the full build-out.