By Mark Belko/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The mayoral candidate’s vision includes local boutiques, small shops, new sidewalks, lamp posts, bike lanes and more Local boutiques, small shops, new sidewalks and lamp posts, perhaps even a dedicated lane for bicyclists.
It’s all part of city councilman Bill Peduto’s vision for Smithfield Street, the 11-block thoroughfare — even longer if you count the bridge over the Monongahela River that bears its name — that cuts through the heart of Downtown.
“I want to make Smithfield Street from Station Square to the convention center a grand boulevard of Pittsburgh, bring in small shops and boutiques from all throughout Western Pennsylvania and give them a presence on a Downtown location that becomes a calling card,” Mr. Peduto, the Democratic nominee for mayor and prohibitive favorite in next month’s election, said in a recent interview.
His timing may be perfect.
Smithfield is already very much a street in transition, with the proposed redevelopment of the former Saks Fifth Avenue building, a new hotel occupying the upper half of the Henry W. Oliver Building, the conversion of the former Lord & Taylor department store into a PNC call center, and the restoration of Mellon Square Park, which should be completed next spring.
But to Mr. Peduto’s eyes, the street hardly is grand right now, particularly when it comes to aesthetics, safety and atmosphere.
“You look at Smithfield now, it’s worn out. The infrastructure is terrible. The bus lane is dangerous, and it’s a distraction to Downtown,” he said.
Mr. Peduto wants to put in new sidewalks, trees and decorative lighting, as well as bury utility lines and make other improvements, all of which he says would benefit Downtown as a whole because of the street’s strategic location.
And if buses are removed from Smithfield as part of a controversial plan to create a bus-free zone in the center of Downtown, the bus lane could be recycled as a dedicated bike lane, he said.
“Cyclists would have the ability to go easily from south to north and be across the city very easily, and Smithfield Street would become less congested, less noisy and more of a place where more people will want to live and businesses will want to locate,” he said.
To fund the improvements, Mr. Peduto would like to dedicate a portion of whatever public incentives are awarded to help with a proposed redevelopment planned by Oxford Development Co. on Smithfield or for any other future developments in the corridor.
Shawn Fox, director of business development and marketing for Oxford, said the company plans to seek tax increment financing, or TIF, in redeveloping 441 Smithfield, the seven-story property that borders Forbes and Fifth avenues.
Oxford is considering two options for the site — a new $238 million, 33-story skyscraper or a $40 million renovation of the existing building there. Mr. Fox declined to say how much of a TIF the company would be seeking, but noted the amount would vary depending on the chosen option. TIF involves diverting for a period of years a portion of the tax revenue generated by a development to help pay for improvements in support of it.
Focus on entire street
Mr. Peduto sees the Oxford development as an opportunity to create a TIF district that would extend beyond the project so that infrastructure on Smithfield could be upgraded. He’s open to the idea of approving TIF for the project “as long as it goes beyond the building itself.” The same goes for any future development on the street, he said.
“When I have conversations with Oxford, it’s not about who’s going to be in the building but how we can reinvest in the area outside of the building so that we can rebuild that corridor,” he said.
“With the Piatt development happening down the street at Saks Fifth Avenue, we’d be able to take a big section of that street and make it look and feel much different than it is presently.”
Oxford, Mr. Fox said, welcomes a redo of Smithfield Street.
“The whole Smithfield Street corridor really needs an upgrade,” he said. “We would be open to working with Bill Peduto in any way we can to help him see that through.”
Mr. Fox said Oxford is still in conversations with potential tenants on both of the options under study. U.S. Steel is said to be considering several Downtown locations, including the proposed high-rise, if it does not stay at U.S. Steel Tower on Grant Street when its lease expires in 2017.
“We’re still exploring options and have nothing to announce at this time,” said Charles Rice, a U.S. Steel spokesman.
Less than a block from the Oxford site, Millcraft Investments and McKnight Realty Partners are proposing a 600-space parking garage and 25,000 square feet of retail space at the former Saks property and adjoining parcels of Fifth Avenue.
The city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority is asking the city to devote 75 percent of the parking taxes generated by the Saks garage for 20 years to help finance the project. That would amount to $6 million of the $35.3 million needed to build the facility.
Whether the parking tax diversion plan could be used to upgrade infrastructure is “more a question of strict numbers,” Mr. Peduto said. In fact, URA acting executive director Robert Rubinstein has said he did not think that would be possible because the economics for the Saks project itself “are very tight.”
Mr. Peduto said he needs to look to vehicles like TIF setups to make the improvements because money for state main street and elm street programs and federal programs used in the past has dried up.
A Downtown retail task force put together by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl estimated last year that upgrading facades, sidewalks, lights and trees on Smithfield would cost $7.15 million, although $4.56 million of that was dedicated to facades. Like Mr. Peduto, the task force also called for the conversion of the bus lane to a bike lane.
To David Glickman, director of retail services for the Newmark Grubb Knight Frank real estate firm, sprucing up Smithfield is “pretty much a no-brainer.”
“If the city makes the streetscape more attractive, that just helps everybody. I think that should be done in phases for every street Downtown. It makes sense for Smithfield because, like Grant Street, it’s a good street for pedestrians to use,” he said. “I think it will enhance property values, bring more people onto the street and help retailers.”
Center for boutiques
Mr. Peduto’s plan to attract more boutiques and small shops onto Smithfield resonates with Jack Cohen, owner of S.W. Randall Toyes and Giftes, which has been a mainstay on the street for 35 years.
“They need to do something. It’s overdue. They’ve done all the other streets. They should do Smithfield. They forgot about us. The whole side of the street is empty across from us, all the way down to Saks,” he said.
The corridor, once bustling with department stores, smaller retailers, and restaurants, has witnessed the closing of the Office Depot in the old Gimbels building, as well as the shuttering of Saks and the Smithfield Cafe in recent years. The Jos. A. Bank men’s clothing store moved from the Oliver building to Fifth Avenue. Macy’s still anchors the corridor but has reduced the number of floors dedicated to retail.
John Valentine, executive director of the Pittsburgh Downtown Community Development Corp., said he has counted as many as 14 vacant storefronts along the street.
Mr. Cohen likes the idea of filling some of the empty space with boutiques and shops.
“We’d like some company,” he said. “I don’t know about these big chain stores. I think these little boutiques would do better. I think that’s where it’s at. There’s enough of these chain stores everywhere. I think people are tired of them.”
The plans seemingly could conflict with the bid by Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, to establish a women’s fashion district a block away on Wood. But Mr. Ziegler doesn’t see it that way.
“I think we’re supplementing. The fact is the Golden Triangle supported retail throughout the triangle historically. As [retail] has been rejuvenated since we did Market and Fifth, we’ve seen it spread and ripple out. Smithfield has been a good retail street throughout the years. So is Wood. So is Fifth. I think we’re all working to bring it all back,” he said.
Mr. Valentine said there are more boutiques interested in Downtown right now than there are storefronts. And Mr. Glickman said mixing boutiques and independent retailers with national chains has proven to be a successful formula in cities such as Boston.
“We should focus on unique boutiques and restaurants and not duplicate what we have in the malls,” he said.
There are some hopeful signs regarding retail on Smithfield even before Mr. Peduto takes office. William Rudolph, a principal in McKnight Realty Partners, which owns the former Gimbels building that housed Office Depot, said he is in negotiations with a “very strong retail tenant” to take all 19,000 square feet of space.
TJX Companies, the parent of T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, is considered a strong contender for the space, although a spokeswoman said Friday that “we do not have plans for a Marshalls or T.J. Maxx store in Pittsburgh at this time.”
Herky Pollock, the CBRE executive vice president who is trying to lease retail space for the Saks redevelopment and the former Alcoa building just off Smithfield, said he is in talks with “several marquee type tenants that would dramatically transform Smithfield Street and Mellon Square.” Giant Eagle is said to be considering the Saks space for a possible Downtown grocery.
At the same time, PNC Financial Services Group is planning to open its call center in the former Lord & Taylor building next month and McKnight Realty Partners is in the process of converting the upper floors of the Oliver Building into an Embassy Suites Hotel. Mr. Rudolph said he has been able to fill nearly all the remaining office space in the structure, which once was nearly three quarters vacant.
Remaking Smithfield, he said, could do wonders for Downtown as a whole.
“It could be the icing on the cake. A street like that in the middle of Downtown could take it to a whole new level,” he said.
Mark Belko: email@example.com or 412-263-1262.
First Published October 20, 2013 12:00 am