Pittsburgh’s lofty ambition

High Point Pittsburgh’s lofty ambition

The Next Page: March 10, 2013 12:30 am

By David Bear /

“This letter is in regard to Viewseum at High Point Pittsburgh, a proposed public facility for the 1-acre rooftop of the 64-story U.S. Steel Tower. … As the engineer responsible for the structural design of the U.S. Steel Building, Pittsburgh, and responsible as well for the structural designs for numerous other landmark projects about the world, including New York City’s original World Trade Center, the Shanghai World Finance Center and the Bank of China Tower, I find the proposed concept to be both practical and innovative.”

Leslie E. Robertson, chartered engineer

  Imagine this incredible Downtown experience. You enter the lower elevator station on the Seventh Avenue side of the U.S. Steel Tower. As you rise up the side of the building in a glass elevator, the cityscape expands to ever-longer perspectives up the Allegheny River. As magnificent as these vistas are, they’re a mere prelude to the scenic wonderland at the top.

  Welcome to High Point Pittsburgh!

A glass atrium encloses the building’s entire 1-acre rooftop, creating 60,000 square feet of interior space on two levels and a glass-walled, open-air promenade at the very top.

High Point Pittsburgh’s heart is Stage HP, a spacious center area and performance venue. The main floor also features the Gallery of Interactive Arts; the New Top of the Triangle restaurant; Pie-in-the-Sky cafe; and The High Bar, the city’s loftiest watering hole. “Viewseums,” expansive garden areas in each corner of the triangular structure, are places to ponder the amazing vistas. Glass-floored sections look down 850 feet to the streets below.

The second level of the atrium offers a pair of 30-seat theaters and three flexible multi-function rooms, perfect for a range of events from weddings and bar mitzvahs to business meetings. Interactive electronic kiosks provide information and insights about all things Pittsburgh.

The crowning glory is the promenade’s 360-degree panoramic view of America’s most magnificent urban landscape–an island in the sky and a perfect place to see the sights, enjoy fireworks and explore the celestial canopy.

For now, High Point Pittsburgh is an idea. But it could be a world-class visitor center, source of civic pride and top Downtown attraction. It could be the city’s architectural signature, like no place else on earth.

Although the building’s New York-based ownership, Winthrop Realty Partners and 600 GS Prop LP, has shown no interest in the concept, its potential has been embraced by numerous entities, including VisitPittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. The Heinz Endowments, Sprout Fund and Buhl Foundation have contributed to the effort. As shown above, Leslie E. Robertson, an engineer who helped design the building, applauds the concept. Planners continue to build support for the project.

A rooftop that mimics Pittsburgh’s Point

Measuring 841 feet from Grant Street to roof line, the U.S. Steel Tower has been Pittsburgh’s tallest building since its completion in 1970 and recognized internationally for its unique structural design, with exposed girders of COR-TEN Steel liquid-filled for fire protection.

Also significant is the building’s flat, triangular rooftop, a footprint that mimics Pittsburgh’s Point in outline and orientation. Designed as a landing pad for U.S. Steel’s fleet of helicopters and vertical-takeoff jets, the rooftop is massively strong.

Most remarkable, while 182 buildings around the globe stand taller, the Steel Tower’s roof ranks as the largest, highest flat space on top of any building on the planet, Earth’s highest “artificial acre.”

In “An Acre of Possibilities, 841 Feet in the Sky,” which appeared on The Next Page three years ago, I reported on the start of an investigation centered in the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University. Our purpose was to explore how this remarkable platform might be transformed into a publicly accessible facility that could be an enormous asset to the city and region.

Considerable analysis, research and creative ideation have taken place since then, organized primarily in a succession of academic projects which have cumulatively involved more than 400 CMU students and faculty members, plus many dozens of individuals in the broader community.

This activity has been archived on HighPointPittsburgh.org. What follows here is a summary of these activities and the ideas that evolved.

In January 2010, more than 300 students and faculty in CMU’s School of Architecture participated in a five-day sketch design competition to conceptualize how the rooftop might be transformed.

Of the 32 designs submitted, five were selected for a second competition. Graduate students from Heinz College’s Institute for Social Innovation were challenged to create a business case for the five designs, based on a triple-bottom-line principle: The project had to be green and financially self-sustaining and provide a civic benefit.

This exercise — documented in an excellent video, “The Roof of the World,” available on the High Point Pittsburgh website — generated plenty of creative concepts. But it also raised many questions. Such as: What is practically possible to do on a building that tall and what would it take to make it happen?

To address those issues, 12 Heinz College graduate students undertook a comprehensive, semester-long study to determine practical requirements and possibilities for the project and to establish pathways for its realization. After much research and consultation, both on and off campus, the team produced a feasibility study and 10-year financial analysis.

The study determined that “Pittsburgh’s Pinnacle of Perspective” would be a formidable challenge, but physically and financially feasible. To be successful, it would have to be a four-season, all-weather, multifunction facility, ideally with its own elevator access. But what would High Point Pittsburgh look like? How would it blend into the city’s iconic skyline?

To convey the breathtaking views available from this high point, we organized folks at CMU’s CREATE Lab, among others, to create the Pittsburgh Gigapanorama. This interactive, massively high-resolution, 360-degree photographic portrait, taken from the roof’s perimeter, captures a broad swath of the city and region.

More than 60,000 people now have seen this image online and in person, and prints can be purchased at the VisitPittsburgh store on Penn Avenue.

Opportunity for international distinction

In fall 2011, six upper-level School of Architecture students and three students from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering participated in my semester-long project to develop a realistic design concept for the facility based on the feasibility study findings. After considerable analysis and outside consultation, the team produced a vision of what High Point Pittsburgh could be.

In addition to the features described above, High Point Pittsburgh is eco-sensitive and energy-efficient. Its passively conditioned interior spaces and abundant greenery minimize power needs. Other systems harvest the wind and sunshine to generate electricity and capture and re-purpose rainfall.

This innovative architectural design complements both Pittsburgh’s skyline and the building’s profile, a concept since evaluated and endorsed by Mr. Robertson, the building’s original structural engineer.

More remarkable, it is an architectural design you actually can explore.

Last spring, four students from CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center, assisted by three School of Architecture students, transformed the architectural design and the gigapanorama into an innovative, interactive simulation of High Point Pittsburgh.

Now, by accessing the High Point Pittsburgh website, anyone can wander through the proposed facility virtually; access its interactive kiosks; enjoy its gallery and theaters; see numerous panoramas; ride the elevators to the rooftop for a fireworks extravaganza; and even get a helicopter perspective overview!

Of course, there’s a world of difference between virtual and actual.

The concept of High Point Pittsburgh now has been embraced and endorsed by many people, including leaders of numerous key local organizations, political entities and even building tenants. The Facebook page is attracting attention and “likes.” What started as an academic investigation has blossomed into an actionable idea.

In the ideal, High Point Pittsburgh is envisioned as an independent nonprofit entity that generates its own operating revenue through admission fees, facility rentals and other sources.

Construction costs on such a speculative project are difficult to calculate, especially without access to the building, but various architectural estimates range from $70 million to $100 million.

That’s a big number, certainly, but not so large in relation to the project’s potential benefits and visibility, especially considering the significant revenue-generating possibilities identified in the feasibility study.        Conservative estimates of visitation indicate the facility could cover its costs, return incremental rents to the building and even help fund other local community assets, such as public parks.

Yes, the position of the building’s owners effectively obstructs High Point Pittsburgh now. But who knows how circumstances and mindsets may change over time?

If Pittsburgh can contemplate hosting the Olympics in 2024 or halving its carbon footprint by 2030, it eventually can figure out how to capitalize on so singular an opportunity for international distinction. After all, if a thing is possible, it eventually can happen.


David Bear, former Post-Gazette travel editor, has been a fellow at CMU’s Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry. He may be reached at high-point-pittsburgh@andrew.cmu.edu.

First Published March 10, 2013 12:00 am