For many Pittsburghers, the Garden Theater is notorious for its quarter-century life as a porn theater and as the centerpiece of a block plagued by developmental woes—but to generations before ours, the Garden was known as a lovingly cared-for theater that thrived as a cultural center for the neighborhood.

Three new developments, finally, are pushing the Garden Theater block closer to becoming a source of community pride once again.

“The first big news is that City of Asylum is closing on the Masonic Lodge in a matter of days,” says Kyra Straussman, director of real estate at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). During the 1990s, the URA acquired 46 properties around the Federal North block, including the Masonic Lodge.

Masonic Lodge: future home to the City of Asylum. Photo by Renee Rosensteel.

The URA agreed to the $50,000 sale in January of this year, but it’s taken months to hammer out the details due to the many funding sources that will be used by City of Asylum to overhaul the lodge. Renovation of the space—which will be called Alphabet City—are estimated to cost $8 million.

“Alphabet City is the apex of our aspirations,” said Henry Reese, cofounder and president of City of Asylum, in an earlier story by NEXT. “In Europe, houses of literature promote the community. There’s a lot of exchange going on between people—dialogues about literature, humanities and politics.”

That’s the model for Alphabet City, which will house City of Asylum’s literary events, workshops and musical performances, such as their popular Jazz Poetry concert. Also on site will be a restaurant, a bar, apartments and a bookstore.

Once the sale closes, look for construction to begin immediately.

In other Garden Theater news:

Restoration of the 20-foot tall Garden Theater marquee is set to begin this winter. “No sign on Pittsburgh’s Northside better conveys a neighborhood’s past, present and future than the Garden Theater,” wrote Jennifer Baron in the Western Pennsylvania History Magazine.

Wagner Electric Sign Co. was chosen by the URA to spearhead the project, which is estimated to cost $60,000. $25,000 will be granted by the Buhl Foundation. Ohio-based Wagner previously worked on the Byham and Benedum signs and has more than 20 years of experience refurbishing theater marquees. “We had to find a vendor familiar with these sorts of signs—familiar with the steelwork and neon and who is sensitive to the historical elements,” says Straussman.

Because of its iconic importance, restoring the Garden’s vertical sign is “symbolic of the restoration of the neighborhood,” says Straussman. This project is “really important for the community.”

Photo by Jennifer Baron.

Finally, there is a letter of sales agreement between the Allegheny City Development Group, the owners of the Garden Theater, and TREK Development Group. “This will put TREK in the driver’s seat of development on the block—with exception to the Masonic Lodge property,” says Straussman.

“This is one of the most—if not the most—important intersections in the central Northside, and it has been afflicted with vacancy and blight for nearly 3 decades,” says Bill Gatti, president and CEO of TREK. “We are honored to be entrusted with the challenge of bringing it back to some semblance of its former glory.”

“This is not a responsibility we take lightly,” says Gatti. “We have devised a plan that preserves most of the historic structures, fits in nicely with the scale of the neighborhood and is economically viable.”

“TREK has been working with community leadership and community members on the final designs,” says Straussman. “I’ve never seen such a rigorous process that a builder has put himself through,” she says of Gatti and his team at TREK. Read more about why the URA chose TREK to take the lead on the Garden Theater block.

“We have hosted over 20 community meetings in the past six months,” says Gatti.  “The vast majority of the folks we have engaged with have been very positive, helpful and eager to see something done with the block.” Some expressed concern about the height and scale of the building “but we are working to address any and all concerns,” he says.

Trek is now reworking the renderings—which they will release in early October.

“I’ve never seen so much vetting in my career,” adds Straussman. This, she says, gives her the upmost confidence in TREK, which teamed up with Q Development, an equity investor. Both companies are based locally.

“The level of interest in this project has never been higher—community members are coming out in great numbers,” Straussman says. “And because we are a community-driven organization,” she says of the URA, “we are so enthusiastic” about the project.

“It’s going to be a standout nationally when it’s done,” she says. “The Federal North block is the capstone of many millions of dollars in public and private investment over decades.”

Among the changes in store for the block: an eight-story apartment building, a rehab of and 4, 6 and 8 North Ave. that will reuse the front 30 feet of the buildings and integrate them “into a new structure in an elegant and sensitive way,” says Gatti. His team has committed to preserving 1113-1115 Federal St., the Garden Theater and the Bradberry Building “in their entirety.” There will also be an eight-story apartment building. In total, there will be 72 apartments in the new and rehabbed structures, which will also feature ground-floor retail.

Lauri Gravina

Woods wanderer who was an an editor at New England’s regional magazine, the research director of a Colorado newspaper and a farm hand in Vermont before returning to Pittsburgh to write about and explore...