Corridor boom Featured

9:38am EDT July 22, 2002

There's no end in sight for the development taking place in Pittsburgh's Airport Corridor.

Despite the seemingly endless list of ongoing commercial construction projects, local officials say there's plenty of room for even more growth. In fact, Pittsburgh Airport Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sally Haas says the area is far from saturated with retail businesses and office buildings.

"We still have about 10,000 acres that belong to the county, so there's plenty of room for more development," she says. "The airport area is like the new frontier because there's so much potential. All of the existing and proposed developments are so accessible to the airport. The more businesses we bring in will mean more people who want to utilize the airport, which is ranked No. 1 in the country and third in the world."

Moon, Robinson, North Fayette and Findlay townships are brimming with development activity to complement the existing stream of restaurants, hotels, retail stores, industries and office complexes that line the landscape from the Parkway West near Green Tree all the way toward Beaver County along Route 60.

Robinson Town Centre and The Pointe at North Fayette were logical areas for continued development after the $1 billion Pittsburgh International Airport opened in October 1992. These areas have grown at an overwhelming pace and will continue to do so in the coming years.

The Mall at Robinson

Case in point is the $250 million mall planned for Robinson. If everything goes as planned by Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises Inc., stores could be open at the mall in time for the 2001 Christmas season.

Officials at Forest City, which is also an owner of the Station Square retail center, began formulating plans for the mall more than 10 years ago at a time when Robinson Town Centre and The Pointe were not as congested as they are today.

The Mall at Robinson will be a two-story, enclosed facility with Kaufmann's, which opened in 1998, serving as the anchor on the west side. Architectural drawings completed by a Michigan firm show Sears, JC Penney and two unidentified stores anchoring the east side. Developers have talked to officials at the Seattle-based Nordstrom retail center, but plans have not been finalized.

Construction of the mall has been delayed as a result of negotiating financial matters, working out lease arrangements with retailers and receiving necessary approval from the municipalities. The architectural drawings show plans that include a long list of retailers, including Limited Too, Wicks and Sticks, Kirklands, Pacific Sunwear, King's Jewelers, Shaw's, Rampage, Banana Republic, Gap, Gap Kids and Gap Baby.

Chamber officials and developers say a mall makes sense in light of the economic explosion taking place around the airport and Route 60. They point to the newest stores in the Town Centre, such as Kaufmann's, Kohl's, Giant Eagle and Payless Shoes, as just a taste of what's to come.

An airport hotel

Expansion is running rampant throughout the entire Airport Corridor, not just in areas which have been popular shopping spots for years. The Hyatt Regency Pittsburgh International Airport, representing a $45 million investment in the region, became the most recent project completed when it opened its doors in late June. The 336-room Hyatt, built by Pittsburgh-based Dick Corp., is the first full-service hotel to open in the Corridor since the Marriott on Aten Road in Findlay Township 10 years ago.

The hotel includes a 150-seat restaurant called the Olive Press, a 9,000-square-foot ballroom and Internet connections for the guest rooms. It exemplifies the type of high-tech mindset which is driving much of the development, as well as the kind of economic prosperity that is padding the coffers of local communities.

Under the terms of a negotiated agreement with the Dauphin County General Authority, which owns the hotel, Allegheny County could rake in about $170,000 per quarter if the facility operates at 70 percent capacity and charges about $200 per room.

Corridor racing

While the hotel is one of the most recently completed projects, it's far from the most expensive development. The Brant Pittsburgh Auto Racing Complex is expected to bring world-class motor sports and entertainment to its proposed site adjacent to the airport in Findlay Township.

Cost is estimated at between $300 million and $400 million for the 250-acre venue.

"This will be a one-of-a-kind facility because there's no other indoor complex like this anywhere that I'm aware of,"' says Gary Klingman, Findlay Township manager. "It will definitely create a positive economic impact and put the area on the map by drawing new revenue from tourists."

The Brant complex plans to host as many as 200 events a year, including racing, concerts, expositions, truck pulls, home and garden shows, family entertainment and wrestling. The facility is slated for completion in the spring of 2002.

Klingman says the facility will feature a one-mile indoor super speedway to facilitate year-round racing. Since many sports car drivers jet to race locations, the Brant complex will make it convenient for drivers to taxi directly from the airport runway to the facility.

Office building boom

Long before the raceway project was on the drawing board, major developers had claimed their stake to property close to the airport. The Cherrington Office Park represents one of the first developments in the Corridor, according to Haas, who points out that office buildings were abundant long before the airport opened.

The RIDC (Regional Industrial Development Corp.) business park in North Fayette Township has been attracting companies for years and continues to expand today.

Massaro Properties is one of many developers taking advantage of the business boom by expanding the work it has already done with projects in the Corridor. David Massaro, manager of real estate services, says his company owns 600,000 square feet of office space in the Corridor, including Robinson Plaza, Campbell's Run Business Center and the Park West Office Plaza.

He is awaiting final approval from the Federal Aviation Administration before his company proceeds with construction of the Ewing Technology Center on Business Route 60. The center will be one of the first projects to locate on 12,000 acres owned by the county near the Ewing Road Interchange. An environmental assessment of the property is expected to be completed in October, allowing the Massaro project and at least four others to get under way.

"Our project will consist of four buildings, each with 112,000 square feet," Massaro says. "We hope to complete all 450,000 square feet within 10 years. The first building should be done within 18 months after the work starts. At some point, we hope to have a restaurant and fitness center in the new complex, which will feature a lot of green space and walking trails."

Massaro says the closeness to the airport makes this area a strong draw for all types of businesses. He notes, however, that the abundance of development also makes the market very competitive.

"There's so much competition here that didn't exist years ago," he says.

To offset the high level of competition and promote the new buildings as primary spots for business, Massaro's company has hired Grubb and Ellis to market the complex, which was designed by Pittsburgh-based architectural firm Tasso Katselas Associates. The facility will be marketed as one which offers high-tech infrastructure to accommodate any type of company.

"We've already gotten some interest from companies," Massaro says. "We've had projects in this area since 1976. It's an area that people believe in strongly as evidenced by the fact that there are so many retail centers here. This corridor is attracting local and national tenants who need to get in and out of the area quickly.

"Some existing tenants that we have came to this area specifically because of the close proximity to the airport, and some are national tenants. I don't see development slowing down any time soon. It's going to continue up the Southern Expressway in the future."

The chamber's Haas says the airport was a definite attraction for NOVA Chemicals, a Canadian-based petrochemicals company that has opened a plant in Moon Township. The company is in the process of building a new facility near the existing plant in the West Point area.

"One of the biggest amenities for businesses here is that they are coming to an area that's undergoing such remarkable development that they can pick and choose what type of facility they want to go into," she says. "The office parks have outstanding visibility and accessibility."

Haas says FedEx Ground liked its Corridor location so much it is expanding its local operations. The Moon Township Planning Commission in June approved a $21 million expansion plan that will allow FedEx Ground to build a 156,000-square-foot addition at its Montour Run Expressway site, a move that is expected to create hundreds of jobs.

The Soffer Organization, which has been chosen by Pittsburgh leaders to serve as the master developer on the South Side Works project on Carson Street, also has invested heavily in the Penn Center East and Penn Center West projects. Additional office buildings are now available to tenants and more facilities are planned there in the future.

The Parkway West area has been a haven for development by TrammellCrow Co. as well. The Millennium Center One @ Scott Station promises tenants all of the features they will need to operate their businesses in the new millennium.

DiCicco Contracting is constructing a 100,000-square-foot office structure on 17 acres along Park West Drive in the RIDC Park.

Old airport, new ideas

Dirt is moving at the site of the former Greater Pittsburgh Airport in Moon Township. The area is viewed as an ideal location for companies, as well as for the U.S. Army. A $24 million reserve center is under construction at the intersection of Business Route 60 and Beers School Road. A vehicle maintenance shop and storage building are in the planning stages for the 26-acre site.

The reserve center is proof that the old airport still appeals to business leaders who need a lot of property in a good location. The airport opened in 1952 as an enormous economic force in the region. It generated thousands of jobs which, in turn, bolstered commerce, the housing market, small business and quality of life for nearby communities and the airport corridor was born.

By the 1980s, it was obvious the airport had surpassed its capacity and become obsolete. It closed in October 1992, and demolition of the 47-year-old terminal began in 1997. However, business-savvy developers realized the potential of the property, which is now stealing business away from other industrial park settings.

TechRX, which creates software and Internet-based technology for the pharmacy industry, announced plans earlier this year to relocate from the RIDC to the Airside Business Park. TechRX will lease about 24,000 square feet in one of the three buildings planned for the $35 million, 24-acre business park. The Elmhurst Group and the ERECT Fund partnered to create the park.

Landscaping at the old terminal makes it difficult to imagine that the property was once home to the nation's ninth busiest airport and one of the country's nicest terminal buildings. However, a few reminders remain, including street signs at the business park with names names such as Horizon Drive, Airside Drive and Lingbergh Drive.

Marketing the Corridor

Haas says the chamber is doing its part to market all areas of growth in the Corridor, whether it's near the new airport or the old landmark.

"We get calls from all over the country from businesses that want to locate here," she says. "We welcome them into our area and let them know there's more room for future expansion and we're not far from the City of Pittsburgh. The corridor truly is the final frontier of Allegheny County.

"Stretching west from the Pittsburgh city limits, our 24 townships and boroughs offer an enchanting array of lifestyles and a wealth of promising business opportunities for those who live and work here." How to reach: Pittsburgh Airport Area Chamber of Commerce, (412) 264-6270

Tracy Carbasho is a free-lance writer from Wellsburg, W.Va.