Editorial: The BNY Mellon Tower can't survive. Pittsburgh must plan now for what's next.

The Editorial Board / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The second-tallest skyscraper in Downtown Pittsburgh could become completely vacant within the next five years, an unsettling post-pandemic reality that will alter the shape of Downtown permanently. Public and private leaders must capitalize on the only advantage they have: Time.

Pittsburgh needs a plan before lease of the Bank of New York (until recently Bank of New York Mellon), the anchor tenant in the MetLife-owned tower that carries its name, expires in 2028. While it is not certain the global conglomerate will abandon the building, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests it: The bank has been unusually passive about bringing workers back to the office, and it has ample office space elsewhere in Downtown into which it has been moving Mellon Tower workers.

No large business is likely to move in, and finding another use for a 54-story commercial hub built in 1983 will be all but impossible. Leaders should assume that, barring a miracle, the structure at 500 Grant St. is heading straight for demolition. The question is: What comes next?

The BNY Mellon Center doesn’t lend itself to residential conversion, the only possible alternative use. One look at the floor plan makes this clear.

Each massive floor is 20,188 square feet — enough to fit 22 average-sized apartments. The tower was built for a single purpose — commerce — and primarily features seas of cubicles, with HVAC optimized for large open spaces and plumbing systems servicing large restrooms at the center of each floor.

Reorienting these systems for residential would alone cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Further, providing apartments with adequate natural light — or any natural light at all — would be impossible without radically altering the entire tower’s architecture, and that would cost hundreds of millions more.

This is why pre-HVAC buildings with smaller footprints are more suited to conversions: They were built with concepts like natural light and ventilation in mind. The Gulf Tower is probably the biggest in the city that fits the bill.

On the bright side, Pittsburgh’s public and private leaders have ample warning, and no excuse to be taken by surprise. One possibility to monitor, however: In other cities, “zombie” tenants waiting for their leases to run out have left their buildings fall into dilapidation while holding onto ownership, limiting redevelopment options. 

In Pittsburgh, leaders including Mayor Ed Gainey and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development must acknowledge the reality, despite being politically and emotionally troubling, that the BNY Mellon Tower is not long for this world. And they need to see this as an opportunity: Within a decade, over two acres of prime Downtown real estate will be a blank slate.

What to do with the space? Showstopper urban park? A transit hub connecting the T and new Bus Rapid Transit University Line? Purpose-built residential structures? All of the above? This — not desperately trying to save the most obvious example of Pittsburgh’s overbuilt Downtown — must be the conversation happening on Grant Street, and across the city.