Historic Wheeling-Pitt Lofts development to get underway
1905 high-rise sparks city’s future, boasts its history
WHEELING — A $30 million investment into Wheeling’s tallest building is expected to inject a new life into the city’s downtown — and local leaders are hopeful that the venture will be followed by a domino effect of supporting economic development.
Wheeling city leaders joined Dr. John Johnson, owner of the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Building, and developer Steve Coon of Coon Restoration and Sealants, along with several other local dignitaries who gathered on the 12th floor of the Wheeling-Pitt building Friday afternoon. Officials announced details of the long-awaited redevelopment of the building into a 128-unit apartment complex in the heart of downtown.
“We’re really looking forward to making a downtown neighborhood, and that’s really what this is,” Coon said. “Once we create it, it’s just going to grow and expand. Once we start connecting the dots, we’re going to have a very, very viable downtown.”
Built in 1905 as the Schmulbach Building, the 12-story structure for many years was the tallest building in West Virginia. It most recently and most notably served as an office headquarters for Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp., but in the wake of the decline of the area’s once thriving steel industry, the high-rise has remained vacant since 2013.
Coon said the redeveloped apartment complex will be known as the Historic Wheeling-Pitt Lofts and will feature two-bedroom and one-bedroom market-rate loft apartments, along with many of the historic architectural features the turn-of-the-century building boasts.
“You can tell there was a lot of money in Wheeling back in the early 1900s, and thank God you didn’t tear a lot of these down like a lot of other cities did,” Coon said. “You’ve got more historic value here thank I think I’ve seen anywhere.”
The key man behind the revitalization of the Capitol Theatre in Wheeling a few years ago, Coon has completed a number of historic preservation projects in the Canton, Ohio area where his business is based, across the state of Ohio and around the country. Currently a co-owner of the famous Longaberger Big Basket building near Newark, Ohio, Coon said a planned revitalization of that unique building has been moved to the back burner during the pandemic and the Historic Wheeling-Pitt Lofts project has moved back to the front.
“He loves old buildings, and he has a formula to bring them back to life,” Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott said of Coon’s renowned work with many successful historic restoration projects. “It’s no secret to those who know me that this project has become somewhat personal in recent years. When I first thought about running for office, it was very clear to me that if this city was going to come back, we were going to have to take stock in our historic architecture. If you look across the Rust Belt, that’s what cities have done. If you have historic buildings downtown and across your community, you don’t tear them down, you try to save them at any cost and make them contribute.”
Peter Ketter, director of historic preservation for Cleveland-based Sandvick Architects Inc. — which is spearheading the design work on the Historic Wheeling-Pitt Lofts, said touted the historic value this high-rise building and other landmark structures across Wheeling have.
“The architectural fabric in Wheeling is as good as any city in the country and certainly in this region,” Ketter said. “We’re standing in the crown jewel of that architectural fabric of the city, and we couldn’t be more excited to be participating in this project. There’s no way you can construct a building like this today and achieve the same level of character and grandeur that we will be able to achieve by rehabilitating this building.”
Tall ceilings, big windows and unique elements are special characteristics for which developers and tenants seek in today’s urban housing markets, Ketter explained. And there is a high demand for downtown living accommodations.
“We’re really going to have top-of-the-line, contemporary apartments in an historic environment,” he said. “There will be a lot of contemporary amenities and everything that you would want with modern living but still respecting and maintaining the historic character.” Officials stressed that this project would not be possible without the state’s willingness to increase its historic tax credits in recent years from 10 percent to 25 percent.
“I said if we were going to make this work — when Doc and I first started talking — I said the tax credits here suck,” Coon said. “I said at 10 percent, nobody’s ever going to develop in Wheeling. They’re just not.”
Local representatives lobbied for an increase, and were successful in making their pitch come to fruition on the first try.
“I thank Doc Johnson for having the vision to buy this building,” Coon said. “We’re going to do this. We think this is not only the nicest building in Wheeling, we think this is the nicest building in the state. Believe me, when we start and finish this project, they’ll be 10 other projects within three blocks that are going to ignite.”
Coon said plans are moving forward on other vacant buildings in the same block as the Wheeling-Pitt Building, which is located at 1143 Market St. He said they are closing on the purchase of the adjacent building where Subway was located. This will allow ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) access to the Wheeling-Pitt building without drastically disturbing the historic character of the street-side facades. The building two doors to the north, the former Chris Miller Furniture building, is owned by RED (the Regional Economic Development Partnership), and is eyed for redevelopment, Coon noted.
Another key component that will allow the project to move forward is the creation of nearby parking for tenants of the new apartment complex. While details are still being hammered out, Wheeling leaders have indicated that the city is committed to developing a new parking garage downtown that will not only accommodate the Wheeling-Pitt Lofts, but will also support other downtown parking needs.
Elliott indicated a new 300-space parking garage will most likely be built on the corner of Market and 11th streets where the vacant Chase Bank building now sits. He noted that unlike major metropolitan areas, it is up to the municipality to build parking garages when needed in smaller cities, as it would not be viable for private investors to do so. In a big city, premium parking in a private garage can demand higher rates that help pay for the structure and even help turn a profit. In smaller cities like Wheeling, rates for a parking garage cannot be outrageously high, Elliott said, and while revenues can help cover some of the cost of construction, the return on the city’s investment will come by way of increased economic activity downtown.
Apartments in the 144,000-square-foot building will include granite countertops and amazing views of Wheeling and the surrounding areas, officials noted. The lower level of the building will be home to commercial retail space.
“While some preliminary work has been done, we plan on starting the project in early February, and it will take about 14 to 15 months to complete,” Coon said.
“We can’t take buildings like this for granted,” the mayor said. “It’s a magnificent structure. It’s Wheeling’s only true skyscraper. The odds of us getting another building of this magnitude here in any of our lifetimes is not high. It’s important that we do whatever we can to keep it. I’m very gratified to have a team in place here that knows exactly what they’re doing to save a building like this and bring it back for another century.”