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Behold, the (Highly Desirable) Frankenstein of Green Building

A design firm stitched together 7 distinct buildings of different eras and styles, creating a mixed-use complex in the heart of Pittsburgh.

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Dennis Marsico

Several years ago, Market Square Place was just a series of historic buildings on three different streets with different styles and heights, all suffering from decades of neglect. Some saw this as a case for demolition, but Pittsburgh saw an opportunity to promote green urban living.

A public-private partnership brought the historic buildings together into a single mixed-use complex that now boasts residences, retail storefronts, and a YMCA, all with facades that have been restored to their original 1930s appearance. This successful reinvention as a fresh, eco-friendly community earned Market Square Place an Honor Award at the 2012 Richard H. Driehaus National Preservation Awards -- and the approval of the surrounding neighborhood.

We caught up with John Martine, founding principal/lead design partner at Strada, about the complexities behind Market Square Place and what it took to make this adaptive reuse succeed.

What’s unique about the Market Square concept?

Strada successfully combined seven distinct buildings of different eras, construction types, and architectural styles into a mixed-use complex in the very heart of Pittsburgh's historic center. To date, it’s the largest historic preservation/adaptive reuse project in downtown Pittsburgh.

What was the value in looking at a whole area, rather than just a single building?

The value of working with several buildings in an area lay in “economies of scale.” For example, some of the smaller buildings individually would not have been able to support the necessary infrastructure to meet existing building code requirements. However, by working with all seven structures, we were able to integrate required stairs, elevators, common areas, and a single shared apartment entrance for all buildings. This also gave us more flexibility in planning the various tenant spaces.

Photo courtesy of the Archives Service Center at the University of Pittsburgh*

What were the challenges you faced in preserving several buildings at once, with a wide range of tenant needs, different designs, and a heap of history to boot? How did you overcome any of these challenges?

The challenges were numerous, beginning with the need to resolve building code and zoning issues. As previously noted, the buildings were of different construction types, and had different floor-to-floor elevations as well as wide variations in each building's footprint. Arranging the various tenant spaces was akin to solving a jigsaw puzzle.

It was easy to resolve variations in some apartment units, while others were a bit more complicated. The ground floor retail space was -- with the exception of the YMCA area -- a blank slate ready for a variety of retail uses.

We gave some consideration, of course, to anticipated uses such as restaurants. In addition, we had to reconfigure the basement as a parking garage for the apartment tenants.

Strada faced another challenge with the differing architectural styles of the buildings. Almost all of the building facades required considerable detective work on our part to establish their original identity and characteristics.

With styles ranging from an early cast iron-fronted building from 1880 to Art Deco facades from the 1930's, we made the decision early in the process to treat each structure individually. This included preparing new ground floor facades that respected each building's distinct character.

How has this transformation impacted the community? What will its rebirth mean for the neighborhood and the city?

Market Square Place was the largest adaptive reuse project on Market Square. It was joined by several smaller but similar projects. Together, the combination of all these projects greatly enhanced the total impact of this development not only on the Square but the entire downtown area of Pittsburgh.

Over the past several years, there has been a steady growth in available residential units in the downtown core. Recently, the pace of residential development has increased greatly. The retail spaces were attractive to a number of tenants and the developer wanted to make sure that the mix of tenants was appropriate for the site.

Photo courtesy of Dennis Marsico

What makes you particularly proud of the Market Square project?

We’re certainly proud of the fact that several derelict and underutilized buildings, once slated for demolition, have been repurposed for continued use well into the future. The transformation of these buildings is the culmination of more than a decade of planning for the revitalization of the Fifth/Forbes Avenues commercial district. The project was awarded LEED Gold certification for both the core and the shell of the building.

We’re also proud that the project has been recognized with several regional and national awards. In fact, Market Square Place just received a Preservation Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation this October.

What’s the next chapter in Market Square’s story? Has it inspired other preservation or development stories nearby?

Market Square Place has been a catalyst that spurred continued investment in rehabilitating some of the other existing structures on the Square, and there is a proposed high-rise office and hotel complex immediately adjacent to the site. As more of these projects come to completion, the revitalization of downtown Pittsburgh will grow.

* An earlier version of this post misidentified the caption.

This post originally appeared on the National Trust for Historic Preservation, an Atlantic partner site.

About the Author

  • Julia Rocchi is the managing editor for the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.