Georgia Petropoulos wants people to be ready for the big changes coming to Oakland.

A 2017 Brookings Institution report predicted that Pittsburgh’s future rests with its innovation economy, and the research hospitals and universities giving rise to that innovation are driving investment in Oakland, the city’s second downtown.

“We’re seeing momentum here in our commercial district,” says Petropoulos, executive director of the Oakland Business Improvement District (OBID). “Just in the core business district area alone since 2016 we’re closing in on over a million square feet of new development. We haven’t seen this in decades. The momentum’s there. It’s happening.”

Among the latest development projects:

  • A proposal by Baltimore-based Wexford Science + Technology to build a 13-story office tower to replace the Murdoch Building on Forbes Avenue. A new nine-story office building is under construction on Forbes, and the University of Pittsburgh has indicated more office buildings will come, some of them higher than 10 stories.
  • Walnut Capital has proposed a mixed-use office building at Halket Street between Forbes and Fifth, adjacent to the 14-story SkyVue apartments.
  • Wexford and Pitt are redeveloping the former Ford Motor Building on Baum Boulevard into a new UPMC Immune Transplant and Therapy Center.

“My board stepped back and said, ‘Wow, we as an organization are serving the current Oakland and we need to be prepared to serve the next Oakland,” says Petropoulos. “We need to set a goal, a vision for the next five years, in terms of being ready to serve this innovation center. We’re going to see larger densities of buildings that attract a lot more people in the commercial district, growing startups and growth in life sciences companies.”

oakland obid

OBID Executive Director Georgia Petropoulos is helping Oakland prepare for major growth. Photo courtesy of Elisco Creative Cafe.

The Henry L. Hillman Foundation awarded OBID a $150,000 grant to undertake a comprehensive plan that focuses on organizational growth and expansion, capacity building and a strategic vision to prepare for the neighborhood’s future needs. They’ll hold meetings with stakeholders, survey their members and travel to other U.S. cities that have undergone similar change.

“Not only do we need to be thinking about the space, how we keep it maintained and beautify it, but also we’re talking about lifestyle amenities that cater to students, hospitals and visitors,” says Petropoulos.

Through a national search, OBID hired a consulting team: BDS Planning & Urban Design out of Seattle, and Pittsburgh advertising agency Elisco Creative Café. BDS has experience working with business improvement districts and campus areas, Petropoulos says. The planning process began in the fall and is expected to take about a year, wrapping up this September.

“We’ve invited partners in the Greater Oakland area to participate, as well as some additional government offices because they’re going to be a part of this innovation center,” she says. Their first meeting with the consultants was in November, and she foresees three or four more.

Some of OBID’s work is to keep Oakland clean, safe and attractive to businesses while the development is underway. The organization installed a digital art plaza on Forbes and seating in open space. Festival-style decorative lighting is planned along Oakland Avenue, and OBID recently got approval to add café-style seating and benches along Forbes on the northern side, between Meyran and Oakland avenues, where the sidewalks are wide.

New planters and trash receptacles are coming and “we may wrap poles to bring color to the area,” Petropoulos says. She’s pleased with artistic benches that she calls the “Forbes Avenue furniture pilot.” Part of Pitt’s ambitious 30-year campus master plan includes reworking green spaces, she says.

“These are all small things that we’re doing now, but as soon as we get to the point where we’ve got these towers and offices moving in, companies expanding, we need to be an 18-hour business district with evening activities and restaurants, not just for students,” says Petropoulos. “The [Oakland] business district is going to evolve massively because of these changes, this unprecedented growth and expansion.”

Property and business owners so far have reacted positively to the strategic plan work.

“I have an excited board. The participants we invited all came to the meeting. We’re in the midst of growth, so we’ve had a positive response,” says Petropoulos. “This will be the first time we’ll be experiencing density at these levels along the Fifth and Forbes corridor, but there are examples of how you can do it so that it remains a positive experience for the pedestrian as well as people in the buildings, whether they have offices or live there.

“It’s going to be a different feel and experience. If you’re used to walking past two- and three-story structures, yes, you will be feeling the difference, but that’s not to say it can’t be done well. What we once imagined is coming to fruition: It’s a downtown. I’ve always referred to Oakland as a 21st-century downtown, a major employment center.”