Dead Developments: 10 promising Pittsburgh building projects that never happened | Pittsburgh City Paper

Dead Developments: 10 promising Pittsburgh building projects that never happened

click to enlarge Dead Developments: 10 promising Pittsburgh building projects that never happened
Image: courtesy of Millcraft (now Piatt Companies)
Renderings of lagoon proposal from 2018, which are not included in the most recent development plans for Pittsburgh's Chateau neighborhood

Many Pittsburghers are familiar with the concept of “Things That Aren’t There Anymore” — our vibrant nostalgia-industrial complex (PBS plus Rick Sebak, etc.) that yearns endlessly for the missing places and things of yesteryear. If you’ve ever had to memorize where an Isaly’s used to be in order to give directions, you know how this works.

Imagine that, except in reverse: “Things That Aren’t Coming Here, Ever.” Someday, we can all give out directions like, “Oh, you know, just hang a left at the GIANT EMPTY VOID where the Wholey’s Fish Market used to be.”

In honor of these projects that got our hopes up or filled us with ire but never delivered (at least yet), here’s a completely subjective list of the most significant dead developments in Pittsburgh from the last several years.

To make it seem slightly scientific, each is given a score from 1 to 10. 1 is DEAD-DEAD, like super dead — never going to happen. 10 is UNDEAD, like this project could surprise us and rise from the grave. It’s been known to happen around here.

Batman goes green

Sometimes, even the best Batman (not up for debate) takes the train to Flop Town. In 2021, Michael Keaton pitched a collaboration with Nexii Building Solutions, promising to manufacture a lower-carbon, sustainable concrete alternative called Nexiite here in Pittsburgh. Green building, 300 manufacturing jobs, decarbonizing the concrete business — sounds great! Sign us up!

However, it might have been just one of those things where the elevator pitch sounded great — like, “Yeah, let’s totally greenlight that Succession/Ted Lasso crossover fanfic!”— and the script revealed how unworkable it really was. Keaton has more important things on his mind, anyway. He is Batman, after all.

Deadscore: 1

A fishy farm

In 2019, Minnesota entrepreneur Glenn Ford pitched an idea for a jumbo-sized fresh-seafood aquaponics farm alongside the Mon in Duquesne. He delivered digital renderings, making the project seem official. There was also the promise that it would provide hundreds of jobs. Plus, who could resist the lure of Monongahela Sea Bass becoming the next culinary sensation?

Alas, that dream is one that got away; the project never went forward. A recent article from Columbia Insight reported that the farm will very likely never see the light of day due to Ford's involvement with a shady Oregon-based businessman named Stephen D. King. While details are scant, Ford confirmed that he did work with King on the Duquesne project, adding, "My recommendation to anyone doing business with Stephen [King] is run."

Deadscore: 1

Zoomed out

During those queasy early days of the pandemic, Zoom one of the few companies whose value skyrocketed decided to open a major engineering office in Pittsburgh. Except, that very company also specializes in making offices irrelevant. And soon, they decided that they could do without one in Pittsburgh, too. Imagine that.

In a similar fashion, DoorDash dined and dashed after grabbing some good press here in 2021, never delivering the actual office, or its promised 50 jobs.

Deadscore: 2

click to enlarge Dead Developments: 10 promising Pittsburgh building projects that never happened
Photo: Courtesy of Brandon Haw Architecture

Wholey empty

The smiling Wholey fish always gazed down benevolently on our hapless foibles without judgment, and we miss it terribly. But no, nobody really needed a monstrous, windowless bomb shelter with three-foot-thick concrete walls, originally built to keep seafood cold. Especially one that was going to be vacant forever, barring some sort of Fallout/The Last of Us-type scenario.

So, the plan to build an actual skyscraper at 1520 Smallman St. in the Strip District is an upgrade. Only now, it doesn’t matter, because no one wants skyscrapers anymore, because no one wants to work in offices anymore. Unless they pivot to housing, this is going to sit empty for a long, long time.

Deadscore: 3

Jazzed up for nothing

The James Street Tavern site in Deutschtown is a repeat offender when it comes to getting our hopes up. Noise complaints from nebby neighbors closed this legendary, 125-year-old jazz club back in 2017, and it has sat dormant ever since. (Because jazz hasn’t really drawn a rowdy and disorderly crowd since, I don’t know, the 1930s, this never made any sense.)

Every few years, someone floats a plan to re-open the beautiful, three-story, red-brick building, but the last round of stories was in 2021, and since then it’s just been more of the usual — endless, cursed silence.

Deadscore: 4

click to enlarge Dead Developments: 10 promising Pittsburgh building projects that never happened
Image: Courtesy of Walnut Capital
Architectural drawing of Oakland Crossings

Crossed off the list

Odds are, there will be more stories written about this project than actual bricks rising from the earth of South Oakland. Oakland Crossings envisions a massive residential project with hundreds of units in the area around the Boulevard of the Allies, with a number of mixed-use buildings, green spaces, and even a neighborhood grocery store — a priority in the neighborhood for decades.

Right now, the Boulevard of the Allies is an auto-centric menace blasting through the neighborhood, unpleasant to cross on foot. A pedestrian bridge across the street is part of the plan, as is a parking garage, along with substantial streetscape improvements. So, what’s the catch?

Well, there are a lot of neighbors. That is to say, it’s not always greedy developers who tank things; sometimes it’s just your friends and nebby/NIMBY neighbors who will fight change for any reason, that reason usually being about protecting their property values.

Prediction: someone will nominate the closed Quality Inn/Panera Bread to some heretofore undiscovered status eligible for historic preservation, and this will never end.

Deadscore: 4

click to enlarge Dead Developments: 10 promising Pittsburgh building projects that never happened
Photo: Michael Machosky

Food porn?

The Garden Theater on the North Side was a porn theater for a long time. There was a decades-long court fight to get rid of it. In recent years, the Garden has been gutted and rebuilt entirely, its white terra-cotta facade now gleaming proudly in the starlight. It’s ready for a nice restaurant or brewpub. Except, well … did we mention that it was a porn theater? It’s not a cursed murder house, but, well, it’s not hard to see why some people might find it a bit unappetizing to eat there.

Deadscore: 5

click to enlarge Dead Developments: 10 promising Pittsburgh building projects that never happened
Image courtesy of URA
A mock-up of what Pittsburgh's BRT might look like

Not-so-rapid transit

Boldly going where no one has ever gone (between Downtown and Oakland), to solve the transit problems of 10 years ago, except 10 years in the future. That’s where we are with the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, which has been discussed as far back as 2014, perhaps earlier.

Mass transit is actually great, and buses are super-underrated ways of moving people en masse. Yet, for the $291 million in expected costs, eons of public debate, and endless newsprint (and pixels) expended, it’s still an incredibly pedestrian and unambitious transit dream. If it all goes well, we may someday end up with a functioning BRT system objectively worse than a random mid-tier Japanese or Dutch suburb.

Supposedly, construction on the project could start this fall. But by the time this is finished, the rest of the world will have probably moved on to aerial gondolas/trams, or dozens of tiny drones that whisk us away to our destination.

Deadscore: 6

click to enlarge Dead Developments: 10 promising Pittsburgh building projects that never happened
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Trulieve in the North Side

Up in smoke

Legal cannabis was supposed to be a sure thing in terms of jobs and profits. And yet, it’s kind of floundering right now. Not long ago, the Florida-based company Trulieve was promoting plans to hire 800 employees in the long-struggling city of McKeesport. This wasn’t completely vaporware, as Trulieve does have some current operations in McKeesport. But as recently as December they were laying off McKeesport employees even after rolling out Khalifa Kush, a partnership with Pittsburgh rapper emeritus Wiz Khalifa.

Deadscore: 6

click to enlarge Dead Developments: 10 promising Pittsburgh building projects that never happened
Photo: courtesy of AE7 and Piatt Companies

Shore thing?

A Ferris wheel — named after its inventor, North Sider George Ferris — is intended to be one of the anchor attractions for the Esplande — a multifaceted mixed-use plan that includes 1.7 million square feet of glass high-rise housing, hotels, offices, restaurants, a splash park, a pavilion, and a marina on the North Shore. Fancy!

Alas, the original plan, which began circulating in 2018, included a two-acre swimming pool (lagoon!) that turned into an ice rink in winter, but that's been dropped. Maybe it's for the best since you don’t want to hear how Yinzers say the word “lagoon.”

That said, Pittsburgh is slowly learning to embrace its rivers after treating them as industrial sewers for over 100 years, and there’s a better-than-even chance this project comes to fruition. Piatt Companies (formerly Millcraft Investments) is an experienced local developer. Plus, this stretch of land, past the Carnegie Science Center, has been vacant or industrial forever, and the neighborhood of Chateau has about three actual residents, so there's really nobody nearby to complain. We may never get a lagoon, but the dream is alive for the rest of it.

Deadscore: 7