Journalist, filmmaker, creative consultant and real estate developer, Holly Brubach returned to Pittsburgh in 2006 after a stellar career in New York, Milan and Paris. A woman of many talents, she is now turning her historic and gorgeous Granite Building into the Forbes, a boutique hotel designed to be like no other downtown. A resident of the Strip District, Holly is a frequent contributor to Vogue, W, The New Yorker, and the New York Times.
It’s been 10 years since your return to Pittsburgh and you were quite positive — and it turns out, prescient — about the future of this city and its potential for growth. How do you view Pittsburgh now?
There’s a new energy that was just beginning to build then. All the signs pointed to the fact that Pittsburgh could become a home to artists, writers, and filmmakers; a hub for creative technology; a community of food lovers, farmers, and chefs; a magnet for entrepreneurs. Lately it feels like all this is reaching critical mass.
Pittsburgh presents possibilities that no longer exist in many so-called “first-tier” cities. I meet people who have come here from New York, L.A., San Francisco. Those cities’ loss has been our gain.
What’s the status of The Forbes, your project for the Granite Building?
We’ve had some delays we couldn’t possibly have foreseen, like the state budget stalemate, which has impacted the timing of our RACP grant and bridge financing. We’ve used the extra months to refine our projections and our programming. People ask whether the other hotels coming to town pose a problem, and the answer is no. None of them qualify as a direct competitor, because we’re a true independent, offering sophisticated travelers an authentic experience of the city, and we want local residents to think of our hotel as home. We’re currently in the process of finalizing our equity, with a focus on local investors and Pittsburgh natives now living elsewhere, who share our pride in the city. We’ll break ground in June, which puts us on track for a fall 2017 opening.
What would make it easier to get projects like The Forbes done?
In the course of making The Forbes happen, I’ve found myself wishing that there were a local community of angel investors for real estate projects, along the lines of the VC community that has sprung up around tech startups. Of the people who have innovative and practical strategies for revitalizing old buildings and sites, many lack the money to make their ideas happen. There’s been a lot of talk lately about crowdfunding and eREIT’s as alternative means of financing real estate development, but I would like to see something in between–not as informal and incremental as a Kickstarter campaign, not as institutional as a REIT, but a way for a group of visionary investors to discover and support projects that have the potential to transform the city.
Real estate is surprisingly affordable here, and there are many opportunities to use it as a tool for transforming neighborhoods, nightlife, the retail landscape, and dining, for launching new products and ideas. I’m struck by how many projects are by out-of-town developers, how many historic Pittsburgh buildings are sold to out-of-town buyers. Not that the city shouldn’t welcome their investment. But I think it’s a different dynamic when new development is undertaken by locals, particularly at the grassroots level.
You’re one of a growing number of native Pittsburghers who have left and returned. What is it about Pittsburgh that makes people want to come back?
People used to say, disparagingly, that Pittsburgh is “a great place to be from.” I think it’s true, in the sense that it gives you values that stand you in good stead when you venture out into the rest of the world. My father taught me that every person has a story, and that each person’s story is interesting and worthwhile. I was discussing this with Duane Michals recently, and he said, “Pittsburgh taught me respect.”
You can take the girl out of Pittsburgh, as the saying goes, but you can’t take Pittsburgh out of the girl. Judging from the other “boomerangs” I’ve talked to, I get the impression that even though we left, we never lost the values we acquired here. Coming back is a way to reconnect with other people who share the same outlook on life, which to my mind has to do with kindness, hard work, and humility. There’s something genuine here, at a time when so much of what we see and deal with seems superficial and fake.
As a resident of the Strip District, what do you think of the many changes underway in your neighborhood?
Well, it’s one of the great ironies of my life that, both as a journalist and as a consultant to luxury-goods companies, it has been my job to identify new possibilities, to articulate what people want next and chart which way the culture is moving. When it comes to where I live, I have a history of moving someplace off the beaten track, then it becomes trendy, and then I have to leave—either because I can no longer afford to stay or because I don’t like what the neighborhood has become. So what’s happening in the Strip feels like déjà vu all over again.
I’m concerned about the huge influx of people coming to the new offices and apartments, and whether the infrastructure can support them all. There are plenty of examples in other cities of areas that have been done in by so-called gentrification. That said, I’m reserving judgment for the time being. It feels like the Strip could go either way–lively and true to the neighborhood’s original character or banal and homogenized. I think what happens with the Produce Terminal will be a defining force in what not only the Strip but all Pittsburgh will become.
In the back of my mind, I’m always on the lookout for the next place to live—not because I’m eager to move but because cities are alive and constantly changing. I love cities. I love what happens when people live in close proximity. Pittsburgh has so many great neighborhoods. Change your zip code, and you experience the city in a totally different way.