“It has become, finally, a neighborhood.”
Since the late 1990s, Leigh White, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, has worked on and off in Downtown Pittsburgh. In that period of time, she’s seen a lot of change, perhaps most notably a big increase in residents, meaning more people are going out for good food, going biking or running and attending events.
“All of those things I think really have come together to make Downtown a place that people are interested in spending time in,” White says.
At a rapidly increasing rate, more people are living Downtown, a part of the city that has fine art venues, a grassy park, an adult store, a college campus and loads of restaurants all within a half hour stroll.
There’s been a big increase in the number of people living Downtown in recent years. The population has more than doubled from 2000 to 2017, from 2,576 to 5,201, according to the PDP, a non-profit group that involves itself in efforts related to economic development, marketing and more for the benefit of Downtown.
“Previously, there weren’t apartments here. There were very few,” White says. “And during that… 17 year timespan, an awful lot of conversions of older office spaces have been undertaken to bring residential [buildings] into downtown.”
Curren Katz, 36, lives Downtown at Lando Lofts on Penn Avenue. For her, it’s great. She enjoys a couple-minute walk to work and has rarely even left Downtown for fun in the two years she’s lived there.
“I’ll go to restaurants, bike around, go out, go to clubs. There’s just a lot of fun things to do, like art exhibits, like cool festivals. I remember the Pickle Festival. That was,” she pauses, “definitely unique.”
Anjli Patel, 33, just moved to Bloomfield about a month ago from her apartment Downtown at the Aria Cultural District Lofts, as it offers an easier commute as she pursues her masters at the University of Pittsburgh. Before Pittsburgh altogether, she lived in Downtown Chicago.
“We moved to Pittsburgh with the intention of wanting a city life ambiance. So something similar to Chicago,” she says. “And obviously, Downtown wasn’t what we thought it was gonna be compared to Chicago.”
There were certainly downfalls to Downtown for her. Eating Downtown presented challenges – particularly, eating healthily. One reason getting food was difficult was that stores often shut down early. Another reason was a lack of accessible grocery stores.
“I think we only had a 7/11 that was generally open late [in Downtown], and that was a big change for us,” she says.
Market Street Grocery, a small grocery store in Market Square, is essentially the only grocery store Downtown. White did note that technological advances have the potential to fix issues like this Downtown. Giant Eagle now offers groceries for delivery Downtown.
And the issues with finding groceries notwithstanding, Patel had fun Downtown, surrounded by local culture.
Downtown’s Cultural District contains artful ventures across the board, including African-American art and culture at the August Wilson Center and classical music at Heinz Hall. Pittsburgh Public Theater was originally in the North Side when it opened in 1975 and moved snugly into the Cultural District in 1999.
“In the past, I don’t know, five years, with increases in Downtown living and emergence of successful and varied restaurant options and just, I think, a new representation of a wider swath of Pittsburgh Downtown, I feel like it’s a completely different environment,” says Lou Castelli, Managing Director at PPT.
Castelli has worked at PPT for 20 years, mostly in marketing — he only just took up his new role about a month ago. During his time there, the business relationship between the customers and the theater has certainly changed, he said.
“People have more choices. People’s lifestyles have changed over the past 20 years,” Castelli said. “You have everything at your fingertips, literally, on your computer, on your telephone, on your whatever. You can stay home if you want. You have to give people a compelling reason to come out.”
Business has been much rougher for others. Eric Bachman, owner of Bill and Walt’s Hobby Shop on Smithfield St., says the store is going through tough times.
“I’m barely getting by,” he says. “I’m barely able to pay the rent.”
The hobby shop has moved around a few times but recently moved from 4th Avenue to a space underneath a law office off Smithfield Street, Bachman says. Before, passersby could see the goods through the window and step in out of curiosity. Now, they have to open a door, step down the stairs and see if the store is to their liking.
“There’s definitely a lot less traffic, although most of my regular customers followed me up here. But as far as new customers, yeah, people aren’t finding it like they did before,” he says. “Just because it’s out of the way and off the street. You have to really stumble across it to find it.”
White contends, though, that Downtown is a welcoming place for small business owners.
“I think that there are a lot of opportunities and amenities and assistance that we’ve certainly tried to provide to small businesses,” she said.
One type of assistance is a monthly e-newsletter that informs small business of events, webinars, road closures, incoming conventions and more, according to White.
A particular small business Downtown White points to as a success story is Boutique la Passerelle, a women’s clothing store. It’s been around for eight years, and for the last five years, it’s been owned by Adele Morelli.
Business has been going well, Morelli says. Last year was the store’s highest sales year and it’s looking like this year will be even better, according to Morelli.
“It’s an ever-growing market,” she says. “There’s always new people in here every day, especially people who are traveling to Pittsburgh seems to be the fastest growing part of my business.”
Customers are more inclined to support local businesses nowadays, according to Morelli.
“It’s been made easier by the closing of all of our Downtown big box stores, which, while very sad historically, has also been lucrative for the small business owners because now people are out looking for the things they found there at the smaller places,” she says.
Morelli has also lived Downtown for approximately 20 years and says she’s seen improvement for the area over that time period.
“In that time, it has become, finally, a neighborhood, where you know people, you run into people who live down here, you form community friendships, and there’s just so many more activities to do,” Morelli says.
While there are varying perspectives on the current state of Downtown, few would dispute it has changed and it has become not just a destination neighborhood but also, for a lot of people, home.
“I think it shows that Pittsburgh is really on the right track in terms of amenities and listening to what the needs are,” White said. “And hopefully Downtown will continue to meet the needs and the demands and the requests of the people who are using it most regularly.”
Matt Petras is a Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer. Contact Matt at email@example.com.