It's amazing what $50 million, the removal of 25,000 tons of debris and a little attention to historic detail can do for an old department store building in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh.
That's what it's taking to transform an 86-year-old building, which has far outlived its original intent as a sprawling, 14-floor urban shopping experience, into one of the region's most colorful -- and state-of-the-art -- Class-A office buildings. It's a model of what can be done downtown to bring old, architecturally significant buildings into the 21st century.
The Gimbels building, designed by architectural firm Starrett and Van Vleck of New York City (the same firm that designed Lord & Taylor at about the same time), was built at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Smithfield Street in 1914. The building was constructed with structural steel covered with hard-baked clay tile, with a façade of brick and custom-made terra cotta tile moldings and other details.
A building in decline
For years, Gimbels served the region as a major department store, along with Joseph Hornes Co. and Kaufmann's, before succumbing to economic times that were driven largely by suburban shopping malls. Gimbels closed in 1986 and remained vacant until 1992, when a New York-based real estate investor named Richard Penzer bought it and slowly began a transformation.
His efforts brought in anchor retailers Burlington Coat Factory and, later, Barnes and Noble Bookstores, along with a few others on the building's lower floors, bringing it up to roughly 30 percent occupancy.
But it wasn't until members of the Rudolph family, which used to own the Wendy's restaurant franchise in Pittsburgh, and members of the Perlow family (the late Ed Perlow helped start Interstate Hotels), created a partnership to purchase the building last year that its future began to take shape. The partnership bought the building for a reported $15.5 million.
Then, with help from tax increment financing approved by Allegheny County, the City of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh School District, the owners embarked on what ultimately would become a $50 million transformation process.
No ordinary renovation
It wasn't just your typical old-building conversion into trendy, if not quaint, new office space. The owners envisioned a Class-A office building which, while showcasing the historic façade, would offer state-of-the-art accommodations for 21st century businesses. Such state-of-the-art amenities would begin with a hard-to-find floor plate of 45,000 square feet per floor -- more than an acre of space on each floor.
"Tenants around the country are looking for large, efficient floor plates," says Jeremy Kronman, a real estate consultant and leasing agent for Oxford Realty Services, which manages the building and its leasing efforts. "But to get a location in the city, you need to go to either an old building, such as a department store or warehouse, or build a new one. Here, we have the best of both worlds, with the combination of an historic outside and a high-tech inside -- and right in the heart of downtown.
"That's what makes this project so exciting."
The owners launched their transformation effort by renaming the building Gimbels Landmark. Then they enlisted the services of Pittsburgh-based architectural firm Burt Hill Kosar & Rittelmann, Architects, which set out to design a floor plan that would meet Class-A standards while also adhering to strict building and renovation standards set by the Pennsylvania Historical Commission and the U.S. National Park Service. Those agencies are involved because of special financing incentives which are tied to historic preservation of the building's façade.
That posed a number of challenges, according to Gary MacDowell, an executive from John Deklewa & Sons, Contractor, who served as construction manager for the project. For instance, the building's windows, made by Traco, could be made of aluminum, but they had to be designed to replicate the style of the original windows.
But when they were installed, a Park Service inspector decided the aluminum was too noticeable on the lower levels. So the owners had to resort to new windows made of wood for those floors.
Moreover, more than 500 pieces of glazed terra cotta tile representing 12 designs had to be matched and replaced. Even the type of solution used to clean the building was determined by the Park Service (Ivory dishwashing detergent), along with the level of water pressure in the pressure washers.
But, as MacDowell says, "In general, everybody has to realize that the Gimbels building will be the nicest office building in town. It's a rock-solid building that offers the best of both worlds."
Inside, contractors have rebuilt the elevators, installing Otis Elevonics control equipment, which not only makes them faster but, as MacDowell says, automatically measures usage patterns and programs their positions throughout the day. Contractors also are installing a 12,000-volt electrical system that offers what MacDowell describes as triple redundancy aimed at protecting computers and other related equipment that prove sensitive to power surges and outages.
If one line shuts off, the additional lines will switch on in an instant, he says. Reaction time in switching lines on the current system is about an hour or so. Duquesne Light Co. is providing the fail-safe electrical system.
Then there's the heating and cooling system. MacDowell says it's the most flexible available, using an open-loop, closed-loop system that exchanges water that comes from cooling towers on the building's roof. The system will automatically adjust the temperature in any given area of the building, depending on worker preferences as well as variables such as where the sun is shining throughout the day.
The crowning feature
The signature feature in the building, though, is the seven-story atrium punched out of the center of the building and capped by a fancy glass-paneled dome That posed the most significant challenge of the project, since the building was already accommodating a few tenants on the bottom three floors.
All told, workers and bulldozers gathered up about 25,000 tons of concrete, brick, reinforcement rods and other debris, mostly after working hours, and funnel it all down a small chute on Strawberry Way, where tandem dump trucks lined up night after night.
"They hauled away thousands of truckloads," MacDowell says. "But the most difficult aspect was making sure there was safe construction."
In addition, the building features a top-floor outdoor garden courtyard, although MacDowell says it's not clear yet whether that courtyard will become a common for all tenants or accessible only to a tenant that occupies the top floor.
MacDowell expects the construction to be completed by the end of September. Meanwhile, Oxford Realty Services has been hard at work lining up tenants.
Kronman says the asking price is "in excess of $20" a square foot, which, he adds, is still about 10 percent lower in price than other Class-A offices in downtown Pittsburgh.
At the moment, United Healthcare occupies more than 60,000 square feet and the Port Authority of Allegheny County is moving its executive and other offices into more than 70,000 square feet. The Duquesne Club, which occupies an adjacent building on Sixth Avenue, has expanded its health club and other facilities into a larger space in the Gimbels building.
Kronman expects it to be at more than 65 percent occupancy when it is completed, with most tenants taking advantage of the large floor plate. However, the owners expect to offer smaller spaces as well -- as little as 2,000 square feet -- on some floors.
To market the building, Kronman says the owners and building managers have stuck with the 21st century theme, providing an extensive Web site (www.gimbelslandmark.com) instead of a hard-copy brochure. The site comes complete with artists' renderings, photos, news and information -- and an award-winning virtual tour of the building designed to collect information about the person doing the virtual walk-through.
"It's fun marketing a truly 21st century building, which this has become," Kronman says. "It's an exciting project. It's a world-class renovation, and there's nothing like this in Pittsburgh." How to reach: Oxford Realty Services, (412) 261-0200
Daniel Bates (email@example.com) is the editor of SBN magazine.