If Eve Picker knew how to take no for an answer, the sleek, three-story loft building that she slipped into a narrow lot in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh would be quite a different place. The 20-foot setback would be gone, and with it a bustling courtyard cafe. A second staircase and an elevator would have consumed living space that, given the building’s 18-foot width, was already at a premium. Plans for an arresting glass facade would have been scrapped in favor of a faux-historical front done in standard-issue brick.
When Picker, a developer who specializes in loft conversions, brought her design proposal to the city, she was faced with a substantial list of changes to satisfy Pittsburgh’s housing code and to appease its Historic Review Commission, whose members fretted that the building would clash with neighboring structures in the city’s Penn-Liberty Historic District. Convinced that a daring design would help bring a struggling stretch of downtown streetscape to life, Picker simply refused to go along. She recalls a meeting in July 2001 during which the commission’s chairman read a laundry list of modifications that he said would have to be made before the project could earn the body’s approval. The changes amounted to a "Disney-fication" of the building that Picker says she could not abide.
"I was done with the design, and by this point, I was fuming," says Picker, 49, who speaks in the lilting, accented English of her native Sydney, Australia. "I looked at him and I said, ‘You know what, this is the second time I’ve been back here. There’s no mucking around with this, and shifting it here, or shifting it there. This is my entire vision. This is it. This is what you get, or I’m going to go away and do something else.’"
"He said that he was speaking for the board," Picker recalls, "and then one of the board members said, ‘Well, you’re not speaking for me.’"
Picker and her partner, architect Dutch MacDonald of Pittsburgh’s Edge Studio, had somehow won over Lela Burgwin, an elderly commissioner. Opposition to the project crumbled and the commission eventually voted 4-1 in favor of Edge’s original design.
"That was our movie moment," MacDonald, 35, says. "Lela saved the day, and totally changed the tone of the meeting."
And so the $1 million 947 Liberty Avenue loft project opened last March, much as Picker and MacDonald initially envisioned it. The building peers out onto Liberty Avenue from between a pair of brick walls that are still speckled with aging concrete from the neglected eyesore that previously occupied the space. The Pittsburgh Presse Deli, which rents the ground-floor storefront, serves gourmet panini to customers in the small courtyard that Picker created by insisting on the 20-foot setback.
"I was completely determined, and that’s when you run into trouble with me," Picker says. "Think about it. People arrive at the convention center, or at the hotel, and this is the first block they see and there’s nothing here. So this was a very important thing for me. I love the old brick walls, and had this idea of something very new and sleek sort of tucked back between them."
MacDonald used an aluminum-and-glass curtain-wall system for the building’s façade. Enormous floor-to-ceiling windows frame impressive views of the pyramid-topped Gulf Building and the boxy, rusted elegance of the 64-story U.S. Steel Tower to the south. On weekday mornings, when the neighborhood comes to life, the din of traffic and sidewalk chatter wafts up from the street.
The lofts do stand out from the office buildings and warehouses that surround them, but it’s the statues out front that first turn heads in the building’s direction. The cartoonish musicians—one strumming a guitar, another squeezing an accordion, the third tooting on a trumpet—were created by James Simon, a Pittsburgh sculptor whose work Picker admired. "I had seen James’s work—I actually own one of his pieces—and started talking to him about how quick he could make something."
"Quick" ended up being about 15 months. The statues, which were installed last June, approximate the height of a storefront and, Picker says, provide a critical transition from the sidewalk to the courtyard and building beyond.
Of the 2.4 million people who live in the six-county Pittsburgh metropolitan area, only about 335,000 reside within the city limits. Of these, just 3,200 live in the Golden Triangle district of downtown Pittsburgh—so called because it occupies the triangular area where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers converge to form the Ohio. Picker sees the 947 Liberty building as an incremental but essential step toward attracting a critical mass to make downtown bustle around the clock.
"I think it’s actually the smaller-scale housing that’s more interesting," says MacDonald, who, over the course of several loft conversions, has learned how to transform Picker’s ideas into finished projects. "It’s one thing to have a 200-unit apartment building, but it’s when you disperse people throughout downtown that it starts to become vibrant." Patty Burk, program director for Pittsburgh’s Downtown Living Initiative, agreed with Picker that the new building would help attract more residents and services to the city’s center. "Financiers see that developers are building these projects and they’re getting rented," Burk says, "and feel more comfortable with the market."
The building’s three units were fully occupied by last October, when Brad Reynolds, the chief executive of a Cleveland-based Internet service provider, moved in. Reynolds, 24, needed a Pittsburgh pied-à-terre for frequent trips to keep tabs on a newly acquired subsidiary. "This was the only unique place I found," Reynolds says. "Everything else was a cookie-cutter loft like you’d find in any other city trying to emulate New York, or they were faceless, corporate-type apartments with four white walls and carpet. And it’s funny, but when I take people there they all say they didn’t know this type of thing existed in Pittsburgh. That’s a lot of fun."
Picker gets a kick out of delivering that sort of surprise. "I liked the challenge of that funky little lot," she says. "I love how that street looks, so it wasn’t hard. I think that other people see a lot that size and see a liability. I see it as a challenge. I don’t know why I’m motivated that way, but I like the constraints. I think that’s what makes cities interesting."