Join our family of curious Kansas Citians

Discover unheard stories about Kansas City, every Thursday.

Thank you for subscribing!

Check your inbox, you should see something from us.

Sign Me Up
Hit enter to search or ESC to close

Mending Our Broken Heart: Renaissance in Pittsburgh Offers Lessons

Share this story
Sponsor Message Become a Flatland sponsor
4 minute read

“Downtown KC: Mending Our Broken Heart,” was a groundbreaking series originally published by The Kansas City Star 20 years ago this month.

It was written by former staffers Jeffrey Spivak, Kevin Collison and Steve Paul, with photographs by Rich Suggs. It was edited by former deputy national editor Keith Chrostowski.

CityScene KC thanks The Kansas City Star and Mike Fannin, its president and editor, for granting permission to republish this report.

While The Star retained the text of “Mending Our Broken Heart,” the original photos and graphics were unavailable. Photos of that missing material from a reprint of the series were used as much as possible.

PITTSBURGH – When a shrine to native son Andy Warhol opened in a renovated industrial building eight years ago, it turned the one-time artist-provocateur into a family attraction.

The Andy Warhol Museum’s location surprised the art world. “Everybody thought the museum would end up in New York,” says its director, Tom Sokolowski.

It surprised Pittsburghers, too.

But the arts have been transforming Pittsburgh’s long-ailing downtown core for years. Now they have helped turn the one-time Steel City into a cultural destination for theatergoers, art-gazers and music hounds. They also are a big part of a boom in new office towers, sports palaces and housing – a $3 billion investment in recent years.

The center of this renaissance is a 14-square-block area called the Cultural District. From its riverfront parks to its rebuilt performance halls, it’s the beating heart of a resuscitated and growing downtown.

“The philosophy in Pittsburgh is that you take an area that is economically depressed and you invest in theater and the arts,” says Kevin McMahon, president of the trust that oversees the Cultural District.

“It’s where the action is,” says Dave Wagner, who operates the two Lidia’s restaurants – in Kansas City and Pittsburgh.

The Cultural District has evolved since the mid-1980s, when some leading philanthropists set out to fix things.

Their vision is one that Kansas City’s civic, business and philanthropic leaders might profitably study as a performing arts center and the notion of a greater cultural district take shape. Pittsburgh’s re-emergence shows that cities with strong assets, ideas and willpower can rebound.

Well into the 1980s, Pittsburgh’s old theater district was a festering zone of peep shows and strip clubs.

Corporate leader and philanthropist Jack Heinz decided that people should not have to put up with all that when they wanted to hear Pittsburgh’s Symphony Orchestra in the refurbished elegance of Heinz Hall. He set into motion a plan to remake the neighborhood.

Heinz Hall is the centerpiece of the Culture District in downtown Pittsburgh (Photo from Destination Greater Pittsburgh)

Other old-money families and corporate titans bought into Heinz’s vision and helped create the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, a private, nonprofit corporation. City officials, developers and new-money entrepreneurs became strong partners.

In the last two decades, according to the trust, $65 million in public investment plus $112 million in philanthropic support helped attract $650 million in private development in the district.

Since 1984, the Cultural District has overhauled two large theaters and a small movie house. Three years ago it opened a brand new, Michael Graves-designed home for Pittsburgh’s Public Theater.

It’s no small thing for the city’s reputation that just last weekend, the first tour stop of “The Producers,” the smash Broadway spectacle, concluded a sellout run at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts.

Also part of the Cultural District are parks, new restaurants and bars, a slow influx of residential conversions, art galleries, office lofts and spaces waiting to house more of the same.

Discussions are under way to create an African-American heritage museum celebrating the city’s role in jazz and Negro Leagues baseball. (Sound familiar?)

Two charter high schools are moving in, and a high school for the creative and performing arts is being built on property donated by Francois Bitz, a prominent tech executive.

“He recycled his wealth into urban development,” says David R. DeSimone, senior vice president of the cultural trust. “I wish we had four more like him.”

The trust gets some money from a six-county Regional Asset District sales tax – akin to our Bistate. It’s asking for double last year’s share of $400,000.

It controls development in the district as a property owner and in various partnerships. It helped form a national historic district to save and reuse 51 buildings.

“That’s been a hallmark of the trust from day one, to value and treasure the architecture of the city,” says McMahon, who arrived a year ago from the Kennedy Center in Washington to succeed Carol Brown, longtime trust president.

The trust also has been a trendsetter in directly linking the arts with urban development. It got a big head start by buying or otherwise controlling property around the theaters it was fixing up.

As property values increase around the theaters, someone is going to benefit, and it might as well be the arts, McMahon says, because the arts rarely if ever pay for themselves on ticket revenue alone.

In the end, he says, for-profit activities like parking structures and restaurant leases help subsidize the trust’s nonprofit mission.

The Cultural District is not without its critics. Some view it as pervasively mainstream. And some are quick to point out that it’s not the only game in town – Pittsburgh, like Kansas City, has lively neighborhoods and cultural attractions outside of downtown.

McMahon says he wants to make more street-level spaces available for clubs, offbeat theater and boutique shops, which will help boost traffic when the big theaters are dark.
In one of its next major moves, though, the trust soon expects to announce a deal to build a 151-unit condo tower overlooking the Allegheny River.

When it is finished, residents will have a ringside view of Pittsburgh’s recent building boom.

New football and baseball stadiums, reachable over a couple of stout, walkable bridges, sit just across the river, near the Warhol Museum on downtown’s North Side. Alcoa built a new world headquarters there, too, and more housing and a large retail development are on the way.

The Cultural District is about to enter a symbiotic relationship with Pittsburgh’s next big thing: a $354 million convention center on its eastern edge. Designed by international architect Rafael Vinoly, the complex is scheduled to open in the spring.

By linking attractions, the convention center will make for the same kind of synergy Kansas City’s leaders are looking for when they talk about the combination of Kansas City’s theater district, performing arts center, an expanded Bartle Hall and possibly a new arena.

Cultural leaders in Pittsburgh and elsewhere know there is more to boosting the arts than creating new places. They constantly compete with cultural inertia.

“If your city is filled with couch potatoes,” says the Warhol’s Tom Sokolowski, “I don’t care how many opera companies you create or sports stadiums you build, it’s not going to work.”

Like what you are reading?

Discover more unheard stories about Kansas City, every Thursday.

Thank you for subscribing!

Check your inbox, you should see something from us.

Enter Email
Your support helps Flatland’s storytellers cover the issues that matter to this community. Give what you can to help in-depth, nonprofit journalism thrive in Kansas City. Support Local Journalism
Sponsor Message Become a Flatland sponsor

Ready to read next

Tap List | Boo! Big Rip To Host Spooky Market

Beer Pivot

Read Story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *