Tom Loftus likes walking through the Strip District at dawn, from his apartment in The Yards at 3 Crossings to his office Downtown, starting his days with the pastry makers and coffee purveyors.

Early mornings, he says, are better even than lunch hours when the Strip’s streets fill with office workers, or weekends when shoppers elbow their way through the Penn Avenue throngs.

“You get the sights, sounds and smells of the city waking up. It’s quiet, and the bread trucks begin pulling in. It’s a unique experience,” says Loftus, who often brings travel writers to the Strip as VisitPittsburgh’s chief marketing officer.

With its eclectic shops and restaurants and turn-of-the-century buildings awaiting restoration, the Strip is prized property right now, attracting more than just visitors. Million-dollar condos, luxury apartments, office buildings and a parking garage are newly built or nearing completion. Other sizable projects soon will start.

“I think it’s shaping up beautifully,” says Chuck Hammel, owner of Pitt Ohio Express and developer of 2500 Smallman condos. Some credit him with starting the Strip District renaissance by recruiting Dan McCaffery, CEO of Chicago-based McCaffery Interests, 10 years ago to redo the Armstrong Cork factory as The Cork Factory Lofts. Now, McCaffery intends to renovate the iconic Produce Terminal that stretches for five blocks along Smallman Street in the heart of the Strip’s historic market district.

2500 Smallman, a project by Chuck Hammel of Pitt Ohio, on Penn Avenue in the Strip District. Photo by Elan Mizrahi.

Hammel moved his truck terminal to Harmar and convinced Oxford Development to build 3 Crossings at its former Railroad Street site300 apartments, four office buildings and a garage. People are paying for luxury apartments and condos, Hammel says, because Pittsburgh’s demographic has shifted.

“It’s a lot of young people coming from out of town, taking high-paying jobs with UPMC, Bayer, Kennametalcompanies are bringing executives in and they look at that price and say, ‘Hey, this is cheap compared to what I just came from.’”

Home to around 600 people in the last censusand likely double that number nowthe Strip is everyone’s neighborhood as an authentic Pittsburgh destination. The board of the nonprofit Strip District Neighbors plans to develop an advertising campaign spotlighting what the Strip has been for Pittsburghers and visitors, and what it has become, says Mike Lee, board president and a Cork Factory resident.

“There is a lot happening, for sure. It’s obvious to everyone,” says Lee. “The excitement is palpable here. There are issues people have with developmentthey fear that Penn Avenue will change, that the Strip will turn into blocks of strip malls and cookie-cutter housing developments. For various reasons, that’s not going to happen, but we’re actively trying to preserve that core character that makes the Strip ‘The Strip.’

Apartments, condos and offices on Smallman with Downtown in the distance. Elan Mizrahi photo.

The goal is to maintain Penn Avenue but to extend that energy all the way from Liberty (Avenue) to the riverfront. Hopefully with the plans in place . . . it turns into a larger destination than it is today.”

The Strip has changed immensely, even if its streetscapes retain much of the grittiness of its early iron mills, foundries, glass factories and wholesale warehouses. Over the past 20 years or so, it became an international destination when Asian, Middle Eastern, African, Mexican, Caribbean, and Central and South American retailers joined the European immigrants with businesses. The more recent developments have attracted tech companies such as Excel4apps, Robert Bosch, Apple and Uber, redefining the Strip again.

Penn Avenue in the Strip: eclectic, authentic and much loved. Photo by Elan Mizrahi.

“It’s not like how it used to be even 10 years ago, when there was a lot of nightlife here,” says Lee. “There is still some, but not like the Rosebud and Metropol days and the (Boardwalk) barge that was down there. That speaks to how people’s tastes have changed. People want to go and have a craft cocktail and some food. Everyone’s more hipster these days; more intimate settings are more desirable.”

The boutique Pittsburgh Winery at 2815 Penn Ave. has been hosting events and music (and is in the process of updating their space for code). At 2517 Penn, Port of Pittsburgh Distillery is under construction; founder Blake Ragghianti promises on his Facebook page to bring grappa, rum and other fine spirits. Wigle Whiskey, at 2401 Smallman, and Maggie’s Farm Rum Distillery, at 3212A Smallman, apparently soon will be joined by a tequila distillery at 2613 Smallman, where Artistry is moving out. And just announced: Pennsylvania Libations which carries craft spirits from throughout the state, is opening on Penn next to Mon Ami.

Produce Terminal and 1600 Smallman

Of all the activity and plans, McCaffery’s project is certainly generating the most buzz. His company anticipates starting construction in the third quarter of 2017 on the one-story Produce Terminal (officially the Pennsylvania Fruit Auction and Sales Building) that runs from the 16th Street Bridge to 21st Street, and on a four-story warehouse across the street at 1600 Smallman that once housed Rosebud and Metropol nightclubs, says Pamela Austin, McCaffery’s senior project manager of development and a Strip District resident.

A January 18 public meeting is scheduled at Contemporary Craft to discuss public improvements to Smallman Street, its sidewalks, crossings and traffic signals as part of the project. The Pittsburgh Public Schools board has balked at a tax increment financing plan for that work. The Urban Redevelopment Authority owns the terminal, and four years ago chose McCaffery, who also developed the 96-unit apartment building known as Lot 24.

“Both the 1600 Smallman and Produce Terminal buildings are looking to attract creative/tech office users with their high ceilings, great windows, and open floor plans,” Austin says. “Both projects plan to use historic tax credits as part of our financing plan, so historic preservation is a priority in our renovations. We also are incorporating sustainability into our design.”

The Produce Terminal, opened in 1926, is vacant except for the 21st Street end section that Contemporary Craft occupies, and a seller of roses in one bay. McCaffery will leave the building intact but cut pedestrian pass-throughs at 17th, 18th and 20th streets to access parking in the back, and will widen the elevated dock along the building’s front by 12 feet.

McCaffery can’t say whether Contemporary Craft, an internationally-renowned arts center operating since 1971, will stay. That likely will depend on the rent. “We’ve got to negotiate with them,” he says. “I’ve no reason to not want them; they’re a neat group.”

Buncher’s Riverside Landing is underway on Smallman St. next to the Cork Factory. Photo by Elan Mizrahi.
Buncher’s Riverside Landing is underway on Smallman St. next to the Cork Factory. Photo by Elan Mizrahi.

Riverfront Landing

Behind the massive terminal building, Buncher Company is developing Riverfront Landing. One of Pittsburgh’s top developers, Buncher has teamed with NRP Group of Cleveland to build 365 housing units (rentals) in the first phase of more than 700 that are planned. The $450 million Riverfront Landing, on 37 acres that Buncher owns, also would have retail space and offices.

A waterfront park mapped out by Riverlife, with riverfront property owners, would run the length of the Strip District, from 11th to 31st streets.

“The Strip is a funky place that’s a desirable destination because of its unique character, and a lot of the property owners seem to understand that,” says Riverlife spokesman Stephan Bontrager. “The vision plan calls for the riverfront to have its own Pittsburgh character and to embrace the industrial remnants that have been left behind, like the crane base at 21st Street or the electrical tower at 26th.

“We’re excited to think of a riverfront that is open to all, that is a destination for Pittsburghers and visitors alike, that reflects the character of the neighborhood and reconnects people back to the water.”

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.