Where in the World is Point Park?

A $170 million expansion aims to bring life to the university’s corner of Downtown
Photo by Cami Mesa Where in the World is Point Park?
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Back from the endangered list, the “little school that could” has a plan to revive Downtown. Can it create a Latin Quarter by the Mon?

Point Park University, as it is now called (it was until recently a college), has been Downtown since the 1930s. For years, though, it’s had an identity problem. When most Pittsburghers think of “Point Park,” what comes to mind is Point State Park, the triangular swath of green where the city’s three rivers meet, not the commuter school a few blocks to the east.

That’s largely because, for most of the school’s history, there wasn’t much to it. The entire campus consisted of a pair of nondescript academic buildings connected by a bridge over Wood Street. That was it. And even that tiny footprint nearly disappeared. The school almost went under twice, most recently in 1994, when it seriously considered committing academic seppuku by merging with Duquesne University.

But that was then. The school’s enrollment, endowment and budget are all up, and it’s going on a real estate binge to keep up with its growth. It’s buying Downtown properties and converting them into dorms, classrooms and activity space. In short, it’s building something it has never really had — a campus.

Point Park is hoping this expansion will affect more than its own real estate footprint. School leaders want to link its own transformation with efforts to revive its slice of Downtown, a sleepy sliver of office buildings along the Monongahela River that empties out after the workday. Point Park’s master plan for the neighborhood — released this month — envisions a kind of Latin Quarter, complete with bookstores, cafes and real, live human beings walking around well-​lit city streets at night.

It’s not just about academic or economic development,” says Mariann Geyer, vice president of institutional advancement. “It’s about academics acting as a catalyst for an amazing change Downtown. We’re creating momentum that we hope rolls up Wood Street.”

It is an ambitious plan — the school expects the bill for expansion to total $170 million. That’s a lot of green for a school whose endowment, until a few years ago, was just over $5 million. But Point Park’s leaders are devoted to the idea that they can help reinvigorate Downtown as it grows.

People often tease us that we’re the ‘little engine that could,’” says University President Paul Hennigan. “And I think they’re right. All the energy, all the momentum is going our way. You’ll be amazed at what you see from us in five, 10 years.”

From its inception as a training school for secretaries, the school has catered to “non-​traditional” students — adults looking to improve their prospects through professional training. Over the years, Point Park became nationally known for its theatre and performing arts conservancy — the elite program accepts only seven percent of applicants per year, and many of its graduates go on to work on Broadway.

The school nearly failed first in the 1970s, after a rapid expansion resulted in default on debt. The board of trustees resisted the second close call — the urge to merge with Duquesne more than a decade ago — and several people donated heavily to keep the school afloat, says alum Tom Golonski, retired CEO of National City Bank and chairman of the school’s board of trustees.

We were losing corporate headquarters Downtown at the time,” says Golonski. “The opportunity to create a niche in Downtown was there. There were a number of us who thought if the school could thrive, it would be really great for the city.”

In 1996, Point Park hired Katherine Henderson as president, and the school started to turn a corner. “The truth of the matter is, the school did not have a lot of energy before Kathy arrived,” says Golonski, who earned his degree at Point Park by taking night classes while working as a bank vice president.

Under Henderson, Point Park focused on appealing to more traditional, four-​year students. Part of that meant improving facilities.

When parents take their kid to visit schools, they want to see buildings that are safe, neat and clean. Kathy never lost sight of that,” Golonski says.

The school added programs such as digital cinema arts, national security and sports, art and entertainment management, all in an attempt to attract students. The plan worked. Enrollment has grown by 50 percent over the past 10 years. In 2004, it became a university, offering master’s degrees in several fields.

As enrollment climbed, so did Point Park’s need for square footage. “About four years ago, we exceeded our capacity,” says Hennigan, who succeeded Henderson as president two years ago. “Frankly, we’re out of space right now.”

From two buildings 10 years ago, the university now owns 15 properties and leases four.

Its latest high-​profile acquisition is the $3.8 million purchase of the YMCA building along the Boulevard of the Allies. The Y is moving a few blocks over to the former G.C. Murphy building on Fifth Avenue. Point Park is planning to convert the former Y into a much-​needed student center, complete with pool and gymnasium. The school also recently bought two big office buildings out of foreclosure, opened up a Starbucks on the ground floor of a residence hall and put in a LEED-​certified, $16 million dance center.

And last fall, the university invited the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute to convene a nationwide panel of planners, developers and architects to create a master plan for their neighborhood. The panel endorsed the university’s plans to spruce up the area by bringing street-​level retail to campus, improving street signs, installing benches and parklets and lining the median of the Boulevard of the Allies with trees to slow down traffic. The university also plans to build a small park at Wood Street and the Boulevard of the Allies where students can lounge about on a sunny afternoon or locals might read the paper on Sunday morning.

Perhaps the most significant plan is to relocate the Pittsburgh Playhouse. The Playhouse is Point Park’s performing arts center, where a professional theater company and three student-​run companies stage theatre and dance productions. Point Park is planning to move it from its longtime home in Oakland to a new theatre complex along Fifth Avenue, in the heart of the Fifth and Forbes corridor. “We want to create another point of energy Downtown,” says Geyer. The playhouse drew 40,000 people to its productions last year. “We want to bring all those people here, with all of Downtown at their feet.”

From the beginning, the university has tried to make sure its expansion sat well with its neighbors, Hennigan says. They’ve met with some 200 Downtown stakeholders — developers, businesses and city and county officials. “We haven’t encountered any resistance, and we’ve touched a lot of bases.”

Traditionally, colleges and universities haven’t always had the best interests of their neighborhood in mind, says Michael Beyard, a senior research fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a kind of “New Urbanism” think tank. That’s begun to change, as urban schools such as Penn, Ohio State and USC have begun to see the benefits to improving the neighborhoods surrounding them.

They’re no longer trying to wall themselves off from the problems around them,” Beyard says. “They’re now trying to expand out to solve the problems in these neighborhoods, so they don’t need the walls anymore.”

Point Park’s plans could not come at a better time for boosters of Downtown revitalization. After years of debate over how to get people to resist the urge to flee Downtown at night, residential development has finally started taking off there. Upscale condos and apartments are going into former banks and office buildings. There are now 3,000 residents in the Golden Triangle, enough of a 24-​hour populace that the neighborhood even has a grocery store — its first in over a decade.

One of the major reasons for this rebirth is the success of the Pittsburgh Cultural District, the former red-​light district that city and philanthropic leaders helped to turn into a strip of theatres, eateries and hotels over the past two decades.

Few who saw that neighborhood in those days could have guessed it would become the cultural hub it is now, says James Rohr, president and CEO of PNC Financial and chairman of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

The place was a dump,” says Rohr. “It was the worst neighborhood in Western Pennsylvania.”

Rohr is a former chairman of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the group that spurred that neighborhood’s turnaround. Now, the Cultural District has become a national model as sleek lounge bars, entertainment venues and nighttime crowds of culture lovers have sprouted in a district that was once dotted with adult book stores and porno theatres.

Rohr considers what’s happening around Point Park to be a continuation of the turnaround that began with the Cultural District. (PNC is building a 23-​story tower, Three PNC Plaza, a few blocks from Point Park.)

It takes time. You have to do it piece by piece — but after a while, there isn’t anything left to turn around. We’re very close to the brink of when it becomes a 24-​hour neighborhood.”

Among the keys to Point Park’s plan is to build a kind of college corridor, which would include Duquesne University in Uptown and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, which moved a few blocks from Point Park in 2000. The Art Institute just finished moving all its campus housing to the neighborhood this year, in hope of creating a vibrant strip between its two neighboring institutions.

Development in the corridor has been slow, admits the Art Institute’s president, George Pry. The school hasn’t found any takers to put in student-​oriented businesses near its residential halls. Pry thinks Point Park’s plans will change that. “Once you get some density, you’re going to find these businesses coming in.”

Few would argue that after 5 p.m., Point Park’s neighborhood, like much of Downtown, feels empty. Unlit alleyways and side streets still resemble a backdrop for a Batman movie.

The neighborhood’s late-​night ambience — or lack thereof — is the number one complaint on campus, says Rosalynn Cruz, who was the United Student Government president until graduating in May with a degree in dance.

Especially at nighttime, the streets here are dead,” says Cruz. “Everything closes up at night. You’ve either got to go to the South Side or Station Square or Oakland to do anything at night. After two years of living on campus, most students catch on. They’re like, ‘You know what? Why am I living here?’”

That type of realization is part of the reason why only about 750 of Point Park’s 3,500 students live on campus, in university-​owned dormitories and apartments. The school would like that number to increase and is installing hundreds of student housing units in the neighborhood. By 2013, it expects to have 1,200 students living on campus.

More students makes it more of a vibrant, 24-​hour, 7-​days-​a-​week kind of atmosphere,” says Geyer.

And in like manner, says Beyard of the Urban Land Institute, more people living Downtown will draw others into the district.

If there’s nobody on the street, I can guarantee no one’s going to want to be there at night. You need a tipping point at which people are going to a place because that’s the place to see and be seen.”

Geyer, who formerly led the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, points to development around the school as evidence that the neighborhood is changing — several condo projects are under way, and restaurants keep popping up in the area.

One of those is the Courthouse Tavern. Co-​owner Gerry Britton says he and his brother-​in-​law decided to buy the bar, the former Chart Room, because of increased Downtown development. The two considered buying a bar in the East End but decided their return could be greater Downtown. “Five years ago, this never could have happened,” says Britton, an affable Irishman. “It was a calculated risk on our part.”

Britton’s bar is right in the middle of the Fifth and Forbes Corridor, which the city has been trying to redevelop for years, on a block where Point Park owns a substantial number of properties. Nighttime business is still slow, and the bar’s closed on weekends, but Britton sees a future filled with after-​work crowds and a take-​out business catering to students. Having Point Park as a neighbor made the investment feel safer, he says.

Anyone looking for proof that change is afoot need only look on the shelves of Smithfield News, nestled between the Art Institute and Point Park. Five years ago, store owner Brian Weiss sold cigarettes, lotto tickets and not much else. That was before the students came. Weiss decided to expand his store after the Art Institute moved its student residences to the neighborhood last year.

He now stocks his shelves with milk, cottage cheese, eggs — unthinkable a few years ago but hot commodities today. He’s selling student favorites such as protein shakes, gourmet coffee and Cricket phone cards. (He’s also stocking more condoms and rolling papers, for what it’s worth.)

Before, I’d have some paper plates or laundry detergent, and it would just sit there for two, three years. Nowadays, I can’t keep the stuff on my shelf.”

Students have to squeeze through a narrow aisle to get to the cash register, because the place is under construction. He bought the flower shop next door and is in the middle of a $500,000 expansion.

We’re going to have flat screens on the wall, wi-​fi, it’s going to be laid out,” he says, imagining his store of the future.

Weiss is a high-​energy guy who gripes about high taxes on cigarettes (“$13.50 a carton!”) and Downtown parking enforcement (“7 minutes a quarter!”), but he’s a firm believer in development from below. He knows that when more students are Downtown, their parents will want more cops on the street, and the rest of the city will take notice. “It’s not the million dollar condos that are going to make a difference — it’s the kids that are changing Downtown.”

Cruz, the outgoing student body president at Point Park, couldn’t agree more. “I hate to say this, and I mean this in a good way, but if we keep expanding, we’re going to take over Downtown Pittsburgh.”

Reid R. Frazier

Reid is a freelance writer who worked as a reporter for the North Jersey Herald & News and the Pittsburgh Tribune-​Review. He also been a door-​to-​door pie salesman in France, a night-​shift doughnut finisher in Oakland and a wedding photographer’s assistant in New York City. He lives in Wilkinsburg with his Marijke, daughters, Anya and Ruby, and Cleo, their curbside setter.

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