New condos a towering success
151 First Side, the first Downtown condominium project since 1968, is selling quickly as its opening nears.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

By Mark Belko, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When Ralph Falbo first tried to get the money to finance a new condominium tower Downtown, people laughed at him. A good friend told him he'd be better off building a parking garage.

Now, as he stands on the top floor of 151 First Side with Downtown skyscrapers jutting behind him, Mr. Falbo is having the last laugh.
He has sold 58 of the 78 condominiums, with a top-floor penthouse fetching $1.3 million and several other units going for at least $1 million. The first closing will be July 24, some four years after he nervously broached the idea of building Downtown's first new condo tower since 1968.

"I couldn't be happier that we did it," he said at the end of an 80-minute tour this week. "I think it has proven to people in Pittsburgh that there is a market for people to live Downtown. Obviously they're here."

Mr. Falbo has sold all of the lower-priced units below $300,000, including 1-bedroom "studios," in the $28 million building, which fronts First Avenue and Fort Pitt Boulevard. Of the 20 units left, there are two in the mid- to high $300,000 range. The rest are priced from $400,000 to $1.8 million for a top-floor penthouse with a river view.

While the 18-story building is not sold out for its upcoming opening, Mr. Falbo said he is "very comfortable" with the pace of sales. He said he is 22 months into an expected 36-month selling period with roughly three quarters of the units sold.

"We're very happy about the progress. When you think we didn't get a model until last week and we sold 55 units before we had the model, I think that's pretty outstanding," he said.

So outstanding, in fact, that Mr. Falbo is considering two more sites, one on the South Side and one Downtown, for condominiums.

He is working with the city Urban Redevelopment Authority on a four-story, 40-unit condominium building near the Hot Metal Bridge and the UPMC Sports Performance Complex on the South Side.

Mr. Falbo is hoping to target younger buyers with the $14 million project, with prices ranging from $225,000 to $350,000 for a "good basic unit" that later can be customized if the owner desires.

"We realized here that if we would have had more units in that range we would have sold them out," he said.

He won't talk much about the Downtown project, other than to say it would involve condos, offices and shops, apparently similar in some respects to the Piatt Place complex proposed in the old Lazarus-Macy's building by Millcraft Industries.

Mr. Falbo beamed like a father showing off photos of his newborn during the tour, whether he was standing in a fourth-floor model with stainless steel appliances, granite counter tops, hardwood flooring and a 600-square-foot terrace or a dusty unfinished penthouse with no drywall but sweeping views of the Downtown skyline.

From the top floor, on the Monongahela River side, one gets an omnipresent feel, as traffic whirls by on the parkway and Fort Pitt Bridge and boats squirt across the water. Toward the east, the South Side yawns and the Smithfield Street Bridge lounges lazily across the river.

On the other side, the city prances, from big skyscrapers like the U.S. Steel Tower and One Mellon Center to the steeples of PPG Place, which stand like sentries.

"Some of this is dumb luck," said Brett Malky, president of EQA Landmark Communities, Mr. Falbo's partner in the venture. "We didn't know it was going to be this nice of a view."

Some three weeks before the first closing, 151 First Side is rounding into form. Drywall and studs are going up throughout the building. The lobby and entrance are closing in on completion, as are some of the first condos.

Residents will begin moving in after the first closing July 24 and will continue until November. Mr. Falbo started with 82 condos but some buyers combined multiple units into one, decreasing the number to 78.

All residents received one parking space in the four-level garage that's part of the building. But some have chosen to purchase a second spot at prices ranging from $15,000 to $50,000.

Mr. Falbo said condo buyers have run the gamut. They have included retired executives, lawyers, a former U.S. attorney, law school deans, and a mix of younger and older residents.

One of the buyers was Mr. Falbo himself. He purchased a 12th floor unit for $440,000 that now is serving as a model. The condo overlooks the river and Station Square, where his father got off a train at age 12 to start a job in Coraopolis.

Initially, 80 percent of buyers came from out of town or were relocating back to Pittsburgh. But more recently, most of the buyers have been local people, leading Mr. Malky to believe that they have been convinced that Downtown living is for real.

It took Mr. Falbo a long time to convince bankers of the same. But he has no regrets about taking the plunge.

"Everything clicked," he said. "I'm happy we did it. It's been fun and I can't wait to do another one."
Post-Gazette