Neighborhood Profile: Mt. Washington and Station Square

By March 5, 2019 No Comments

The Pittsburgh Skyline rises over Mt. Washington (Current photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

Peanut butter and jelly. Milk and cookies. Mashed potatoes and gravy. Peas and carrots. What do these things have in common with Mt. Washington and Station Square? They’re all classic pairings.

Each exists on its own, but when you put them together, it just works. In the case of Mt. Washington and Station Square, both are individual places: one a riverfront business hub, one a residential neighborhood with great views. But together they combine to make one of the hottest spots for out-of-town guests, foodies, fun-seekers and view-lovers alike.

Mt. Washington looms high above the city, with Station Square nestled at its base. Connecting Mt. Washington and Station Square together are the Monongahela Incline and the Duquesne Incline. The two use cars and cables to get from the top to the bottom and vice versa. Originally built to haul coal, folks soon realized that they might be a good way to get people and goods up and down the quickly-developing hillside. The easy-access they afforded people helped encourage the rapid growth of the city’s most scenic neighborhood.

The Monongahela Incline (or the Mon Incline, as most people refer to it) is the oldest continuously operating incline in America. The incline, also called a funicular, carries almost 600,000 passengers annually, commuters and tourists alike. A series of water main breaks has temporarily shut down the Mon Incline as of Feb. 4, but according to Port Authority it should be operational again in 8 weeks or so.

Grandview Avenue in Mt. Washington is home to some of the oldest, most enduring restaurants in the City, like LeMont, which has been serving up five-star dinners with ten-star views for more than 60 years. And while Mt. Washington has done a really good job of attracting and keeping business tenants, it’s neighbor at the bottom of the mount hasn’t always been as successful.

Station Square in theory should be a real estate slam dunk. It boasts riverfront property, stunning views, loads of parking, it’s flat, and it is replete with gorgeous, historic buildings. Yet it has struggled throughout the years with attracting and maintaining tenants, both for the Freight House Shops and Bessemer Court.

The Station Square sign along the train tracks (Current photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

Last year the then-owner and landlord of Station Square, Forest City, was quoted as saying that they enjoyed a 60 percent occupancy rate. A current rate was unavailable, and a call to new ownership resulted in being pointed to the ‘Renovations’ page of the Station Square website, but it’s pretty clear from just walking through that 60 percent might be just a tad high.

There are a some sturdy staples, like Buckheads and Just Ducky Tours, (and, of course, local artist and long-time Station Square fixture, Sam Thong), but there seems to be a lot of empty spaces. Like the spot where Houlihan’s sat for 37 years. They closed their doors last year.

People of a certain age will remember when there was what was referred to as the east warehouse, the sprawling building that once stood where the Glasshouse apartments are going up. Bar after bar after bar tried and failed in that space. Not even Hooters could make it. In 2008 the Station Square Hooters served it’s last wing, leaving the city completely Hooterless.

The new owners of Station Square, Brookfield Asset Management, have what they hope are the winning plans for stabilizing some of Pittsburgh’s most prime real estate. Current plans call for UPMC to come in and take over 37,000 square feet of space, as well as up to seven new restaurants and the closing of the mezzanine level in the Freight House Shops.

Bessemer Court is the riverside complex that houses the Hard Rock Cafe and The Melting Pot, and the Pittsburgh-famous Bessemer Fountain. It has amazing city views, it’s on the popular Allegheny Passage bike trail, it has access to public transit and parking, and yet even this slice of Station Square has struggled.

Bar Louie was one of the original anchors of Bessemer Court when it opened, taking up a massive almost 8,000 square foot space. They closed their doors in 2017. It wasn’t long before it was announced that Rascal Flatts, the country trio, had teamed up with developers to launch a bar/restaurant/entertainment venue, called, creatively enough, Rascal Flatts.

They announced in September of 2017 they were taking the Bar Louie space, but they never opened. In 2018 they were sued for failure to pay rent, and in January of this year the band Rascal Flatts announced that they were not involved in any way with the restaurant developers, and had revoked their licensing agreement with them.

Brookside Asset Management has their work cut out for them, but they seem confident. And they do have plenty of reasons to smile. Station Square is still a beloved destination for many, many people. The Grand Concourse, the Sheraton at Station Square, the Gateway Clipper Fleet and Highmark Stadium and the Riverhounds are all hugely popular and bring people from all over. And soon they will have the additional foot traffic of a 319 unit apartment development.

Rising up where Hooters used to be is the almost-completed, $70 million Glasshouse building. Boasting luxury apartment living, the residential building will be a first for Station Square. James Murray-Coleman, Senior Vice President at Trammell Crow, is happy with the interest so far. “We have had really great interest, but will truly understand the level of interest when we start to market the units in about 2 months.”

He said rent prices will be consistent with other luxury apartments in Pittsburgh, with units going for $1500 – $2400 a month. Folks looking for some river-living can look for one bedroom, one bedroom with a den, and two bedroom apartments to hit the market this spring.  Glasshouse is looking to give Grandview Avenue a little competition for scenic living.

Heading back up the hill to Mt. Washington, you cannot help but be taken by the vista of downtown, the North Shore and Oakland laid out before you. The awe-inspiring views attract tourists from all over the world. The overlooks, or mushrooms as Pittsburgh locals call them, have been the spot for many a marriage proposal, wedding photos, prom photos and countless selfies.

Vehicles making their way up and down P.J. McArdle Roadway (Current photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

Expensive restaurants offering eye-popping views dot Grandview Avenue, side-by-side with some of Pittsburgh’s most expensive real estate (a three bedroom condo on Grandview is currently on the market for a mere 1.2 million dollars).

Mt. Washington might be a tourist destination, but it’s also a thriving residential neighborhood. And the locals don’t go to Grandview Avenue. Behind the killer views lays the true heart of Mt. Washington;  the local shops and establishments that have been there for years. Places like Scarpaci’s.

Scarpaci’s looks and feels like a long-time, family owned bar. And it is. For over 35 years, the Scarpaci’s have owned and operated the small bar on the corner of Shiloh Street and Southern Avenue. Purchased by Anne and Sonny Scarpaci, it’s now operated by their three sons; Michael, Rick and Dan.

The secret to the longevity is simple: “Cater to the local customer,” says Michael. “We don’t consider ourselves a Mt. Washington destination bar. We are the closest to the community, and we are here for them.”

He continues, “We know generations of families. I have a customer, I know her grandparents from when I was a kid here, I know her parents, and now she has a kid… so I says, what brings you up here tonight? She said this bar is in my blood.”

They cater as much as they can to their customers, to the extent that when one of their customers asked if they would do a comedy open mic night, they let him. That was more than five years ago, and Scarpaci’s comedy open mic night is still going strong, every Wednesday. Fifteen to 20 comics a week show up. Michael even built them their own stage, with lights and everything.

Visiting comics have been known to come in when they’re in town. Word gets out. They had interest from a place out of New York who wanted them to operate more as an actual comedy club and start selling tickets. The brothers shot that down immediately. “As soon as you start charging for tickets, it’s over,” said Dan. “I’m not kicking anybody out of their seat. You’ll have people hollering, ‘I’ve been coming here for 30 years and you want to charge me for my seat?’

While they have added some features like the comedy night, they are doing it their way and remaining true to their roots. Michael sums it up, “ I’m not trying to be something I’m not. The moment I try to become something I’m not, we will lose our business. Going back to my mom and dad, we cater to the local people.”

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