The Garden Theater block on the North Side may finally be ready for a new life — for real this time.

If approved at a zoning meeting on Nov. 21, a new 57-unit apartment building with ground-floor retail will be built next to the renovated Garden Theater. It will anchor the corner of North Avenue and Federal Street, at a cost of $17 million.

“I think there were 20 years of failed attempts before we got involved,” says Bill Gatti, president of Downtown-based TREK Development Group. “We’ve been working on it for four years. We had a plan to move forward, but a local North Sider appealed our height variance and prevailed in court. That stopped the project. We’d been stuck for a few years. We’re now not seeking a variance, so I have a higher degree of confidence we’ll be able to move forward.”

The backstory 

The Garden Theater was built in 1915. It shifted to X-rated films in the 1970s, which did not help the fortunes of its neighboring buildings. In 2017, City of Asylum moved into the former Masonic Hall on the other side of the Garden, bringing a gem of a project that includes a bookstore, apartments, performance space and a restaurant.

“So far, we’ve renovated the Bradberry building (behind the Masonic Hall) and the exterior of the Garden Theater,” says Gatti. “We’re excited to be completing the block.” Along with the new building on the corner, he adds, “We’re also going to be renovating the Morton house as well, with ground-floor retail, which is directly behind the Garden Theater.”

Three historic buildings at Federal and North were demolished to make way for the Garden Theater block. Trek had planned to reuse the facades in the previous, unsuccessful proposal. The Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA) determined that they had deteriorated enough to become a public safety hazard.

Garden Theater Block. Rendering courtesy of TREK Development Group.

Gatti isn’t ready to state the rents on the new apartments but says they’ll be market-rate. Amenities will include fitness facilities and a rooftop deck.

The apartment building’s storefront area is intended for “neighborhood-serving retail,” says Gatti. “We’d love to get a nice restaurant.”

The end of the uncertainty for this corner should help get the Garden Theater space leased, he hopes. The Garden Theater’s storefront is also intended for use as a restaurant space.

“We’ve been in discussions with a number of tenants, but haven’t secured an appropriate tenant yet, mainly because of concerns about the balance of the block,” says Gatti. “Hopefully, when we solve this mystery, the future of the Garden will be better known.”

“We’re through the design and development phase; we’ve presented to the community three times now, and have received excellent feedback,” says Gatti. “We’re going before the zoning hearing board Nov. 21. If all goes well there, we plan to be under construction by the spring.”

Garden Theater block. Rendering courtesy of TREK Development Group.

The architect is Pittsburgh-based PWWG.

“We’re very pleased with the process and the plans they’ve presented, and we’re glad to see development. We’ve been working on this for a long time and we’ve seen the enthusiasm behind it,” says Patrick Dexter of the Allegheny City Central Association.

“Anytime you have abandoned buildings and vacant lots, you don’t get good foot traffic. Fifty-some apartments will transform that lot into a much busier and active space.”