Shopping Mall Enjoys 2nd Life As Destination For Entrepreneurs

By Chris Fleisher The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) This article takes a look at a former Pittsburgh area shopping mall which is being transformed into a high scale co-working space for entrepreneurs. Co-working can be a great for women in business who value an innovative-interactive environment.

Pittsburgh

Courtney Williamson's young company, AbiliLife, needed a home, and Oakland seemed to beckon.

Williamson was completing her Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University, and staying close to the school would be convenient and give her access to a pool of top-notch talent.

But she resisted the siren call from a part of the city that has become known for its wealth of hip startups.

Instead, in September, Williamson moved across the Allegheny River to a forgotten shopping mall that Mayor Bill Peduto called "a failed model of urbanism." Allegheny Center in the North Side was becoming a destination for innovative companies looking to get off the ground.

It even had a new name: Nova Place.

"Nova Place came along at the right time," said Williamson, whose company makes back supports for people with Parkinson's disease. "This is just a perfect fit."

In May, the property's owner, New York-based Faros Properties, announced a multimillion-dollar plan to redesign the 1960s-era mall as a modern, flexible workplace where startups would have access to resources and room to expand. It would provide them an alternative to the tight quarters and rising rents in Oakland and East Liberty.

The 1.4 million-square-foot complex is a major project in scope and what it represents about Pittsburgh's economic transformation. It highlights how the city's ecosystem for supporting new companies is expanding beyond the universities and leading to redevelopment of once-blighted areas.

"Pittsburgh is viewed internationally as an innovative hub," Peduto said at the plan's unveiling.

That is why Faros continues to invest here, said Jeremy Leventhal, a managing partner at the firm. Faros has spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars redeveloping properties here, mostly residential.

Leventhal said he initially was skeptical when he was approached three years ago about investing in the former Washington Plaza apartments in Uptown. After visiting, he determined that Pittsburgh was a hidden gem.

"We found that a lot of the old sentiment for the economy of Pittsburgh was misguided," he said. "Pittsburgh has a diverse economy, a strong economy. It had a strong focus on institutes of higher learning and teaching hospitals. We were really excited about the opportunities here because we like to be in cities with a strong focus of intellectual capital."

The redevelopment of Allegheny Center is Faros' most ambitious project in Pittsburgh. The interior is undergoing an overhaul to include upgraded offices, common areas, a fitness center and collaborative work spaces. The main feature is a 50,000-square-foot area dubbed Alloy 26, where more than 300 entrepreneurs can rent desks, use conference areas and work alongside each other in a campus-like environment. Construction is expected to be complete in about a year.

"This is going to be amazing," said Rich Lunak, president and CEO of Innovation Works, a business accelerator based at Nova Place.

Innovation Works was one of the first organizations to lease space at Nova Place. It moved to the North Side complex from Hazelwood in June.

On an unseasonably warm afternoon during the winter, he watched pedestrians in short sleeves stroll through an open concrete courtyard about the length of two football fields. The space will become a kind of urban garden, where members of the public or entrepreneurs who work at Nova Place can relax and enjoy outdoor concerts.

It will be the view from his ground-level office once renovations are finished. Nova Place serves a practical need for more space at Innovation Works and offers closer proximity to many of the startups it supports. Lunak said he wanted to move there because of what it represents.

"We want to get behind entrepreneurs every day and their plans to disrupt markets with their technology," he said. "Nova Place is another revolutionary idea in our community."

Nova Place hit a lot of sweet spots for Williamson. It puts her company close to Allegheny General Hospital, which treats many Parkinson's patients who might use her company's product. Nova Place was more affordable than most offices she saw in Oakland, and the flexible open-office design allows her to amend her space quickly with new work stations when she brings on more employees.

She likes being around other startups and having opportunities to talk shop -- venture financing, growth strategy, etc. -- and commiserate.

Like Lunak, she appreciates what the complex represents.

"Nova, in a way, it's like a startup," she said. "It has this really big vision and wants to revitalize an area. We're at the ground level, and I really like that we're kind of in the same stage."

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