The Next Hot 'Hoods in Pittsburgh
We offer our predictions on communities that will rank among the city's most desirable in 2026. Plus a look at developers who are working to make those visions a reality.
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8 developers with insight who are rethinking our urban neighborhoods
BY DEBRA SMIT
Great neighborhoods — with ample green space, commerce and good housing stock — empower their residents to grow and prosper. Developers are key when it comes to weaving together the physical threads of a community, particularly in urban neighborhoods frayed by years of blight and decay. These are among the developers who are working to revitalize some of the city’s most challenged neighborhoods, striving to be restorers of streets in which to dwell. All have one eye, certainly, on the bottom line. Still, they are well aware of expectations that they give measured consideration to quality of life in the neighborhoods in which they build.
TREK Development Group
TREK Development Group founder and President William Gatti has spent the past 25 years breathing life into Pittsburgh’s decaying urban structures.
Adaptive reuse could be his middle name. Nearly 50 percent of TREK’s $300 million portfolio in Pittsburgh involves rehabbing older notable buildings, from the former Duquesne Brewery known as the Brew House on the South Side to the Century Building, Downtown.
“All are driven by the principles of quality urban redevelopment,” he says with pride.
Rehabbing aging structures is expensive and risky. For years, TREK was among the few local companies taking it on, but times have changed. Pittsburgh is emerging as a hot market for urban renovation, he says.
“Big players are moving in, making bets on Pittsburgh, seeing things the locals have seen all along but didn’t have the financial horsepower to implement,” he says. “For the first time in recent history, institutional money of a significant amount is available to Pittsburgh, especially for multifamily apartment dwellings and boutique hotels.”
A native of Indiana, Pa., Gatti moved to Pittsburgh in 1990. A graduate of Boston College, he founded TREK in 1996 after a stint in real-estate development.
TREK’s Garden Block Apartment complex is the one of several projects pushing the dominoes of urban development on the North Side. Its focal point: the Garden Theatre, a community centerpiece that operated for years as a pornography theater before the city Urban Redevelopment Authority took it over in 2007.
Several developers responded to the URA’s competitive request for development, but those projects failed to fly. Gatti and TREK succeeded with a proposal to incorporate six buildings and multiple lots into “something intelligible that people will live in.”
TREK plans to begin construction this year at the corner of West North Avenue and Federal Street, preserving The Garden and the front portions of three other buildings, and restoring the theater’s dramatic marquee.
Restoration and construction will provide space for neighborhood retail tenants on the ground floor. Restaurants are planned for the old theatre. Studios, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments are planned for the remaining eight floors.
TREK also is an integral player in the Allegheny Dwellings Redevelopment Initiative; this large-scale project of the city Housing Authority intends to provide 300 units of low-income housing elsewhere on the North Side over the next 10 years. And stay tuned for an announcement in March 2106 on a major downtown project, Gatti says.
“Pittsburgh has beautiful historic building stock. We’re unique in that way,” he says. “The flip side is the city’s profound sense of historic and neighborhood identity can also lead to us to be deeply territorial, which can slow progress. The challenge is to find a way to balance and transcend these competing values.”
The story of how the Ace Hotel found its way to the century-old YMCA building in East Liberty is one that only Matthew Ciccone can tell.
Born in Cleveland but raised in Pittsburgh, Ciccone, 35, graduated from Denison University and moved to New York City and Chicago, touring as a keyboardist with a rock band.
While driving to gigs, he says he noticed the vibrant energy emanating from industrial neighborhoods that had undergone urban revival. “I lived in Chicago and New York City during a time of new investment in public spaces and art,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if my hometown, down the line, was as exciting as these places?’”
When he boomeranged to Pittsburgh several years later to attend graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University, the thought stayed with him. He simultaneously worked for Chapman Properties in brownfield and industrial remediation. By the time he graduated in 2007, he had met a core group of aspiring young professionals at CMU’s Heinz College who wanted to stay in Pittsburgh and make good things happen.
Ciccone and friends Andrew Butcher and Chris Koch, now executive director of the Design Center, founded GTECH, which creates economic opportunities for communities through green redevelopment strategies. He tried and failed at a few entrepreneurial real-estate endeavors. Still, the thought persisted: What would it take to erase negative perceptions of Pittsburgh and convince young people that it’s an edgy and cool place to be?
Then it hit him. He wanted to bring an Ace Hotel to Pittsburgh. “Ace stood out to me as a very interesting ally,” he says.
Ciccone found another powerful ally in Eric Shiner, the director of The Andy Warhol Museum. “My calls [to Ace representatives] went unreturned, but Eric got a phone call right back,” says Ciccone.
“[In spring 2011, Ace officials] fell in love with the YMCA and Pittsburgh,” says Ciccone. “Ace sees the world as a unique place. Pittsburgh felt right. The building felt right. The neighborhood felt right.”
Plans progressed over the next four years. Ace’s in-house team, Atelier Ace, handled design. Ciccone, general partners Nate Cunningham and Claire Hosteny of East End Development Partners and partner Thomas Bost of Bost Development developed the project.
Also in 2011, Ciccone began work on an enterprise that he believed would fuel neighborhood revitalization in East Liberty. Ciccone and his partners — Cunningham, consultant Rabih Helou and East Liberty Development Inc. — opened The Beauty Shoppe in a former salon; it later moved to Penn Avenue.
What began as an experimental subscriber workspace has evolved into a full-fledged company serving entrepreneurs and others who seek smaller workspaces, shared amenities and camaraderie. The Beauty Shoppe is rebranding as a national concept, with more locations to be announced in Pittsburgh and other cities this year.
E Properties and Development
When Emeka Onwugbenu began working on the McCleary School Condos in Lawrenceville, he wrestled with the design.
His firm, E Properties and Development, planned to add a floor to the historic, three-story former school at Holmes Street and McCandless Avenue. He was concerned about how the community would view the architectural infringement.
His team developed four designs and put them to a public, online vote. The winning choice added an additional floor of minimalist design, made of mostly glass and windows and set back from the façade so as not to detract from the structure’s appeal. “As a community developer, I look to listen and understand,” he says. “It’s a responsibility we don’t take lightly.”
Onwugbenu, (pronounced om-woo-BAY-nu), 30, brings an earnestness to his business that he says comes with his upbringing. Born and raised in Nigeria, he came to the United States in 2002 and earned a degree in industrial engineering at Penn State University.
He vividly recalls his first impression of New York City. “My head hit the bottom of the taxi trying to see the top of the skyscrapers,” he says with a grin. “I had never seen anything like it before.”
Determined and driven, he spent the next several years working full-time for Medrad, studying for his MBA at CMU and working on construction projects at night. In 2010, he founded E Properties and Development, which today has a $25 million portfolio — a mix of high-end renovations of existing homes, adaptive reuse and commercial properties. A staff of six works from the firm’s office on Butler Street in Lawrenceville.
The McCleary School Condos represent a unique opportunity for creative reuse, he says. Its 25 custom-designed residential units feature original chalkboards and 12-foot ceilings, with a fitness center, roof deck, marble staircases and center atrium with spiral staircase. As of February, 60 percent of the units had sold. Prices range from $155,000 for about 600 square feet to $535,000 for the penthouse.
E Development this year began to renovate and repurpose the 40,000-square-foot former Saint Abraxas school in Larimer for the Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School. The company also plans to break ground this spring in Garfield on The Courtyard@Penn, with three-bedroom units starting in the low $200,000s, parking and a roof deck.
“More and more people are expressing an interest in living in the city,” he says. “That continues to drive our business.”
Allegheny Housing Rehabilitation Corp.
The Allegheny Housing Rehabilitation Corp. has worked for nearly a half-century to provide affordable, subsidized housing for Pittsburgh’s most at-risk population. Under the leadership of Milton Washington, who joined the company in 1968 and with a group of investors acquired it in 1974, AHRCO has amassed a 1,700-unit portfolio of urban multi-family properties, most of them in the city.
Milton’s daughter, Lara Washington, 48, took the reins as company president in 2008. Since then, she has been building on her father’s legacy by rehabilitating, developing and managing housing complexes that qualify for subsidized assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This enables qualified, low-income tenants to pay reduced rents equal to 30 percent of their adjusted gross income, says Washington.
More than 20,000 low-income residents of Pittsburgh live in assisted-housing units. Half of these residents reside in privately managed properties owned by entities such as AHRCO, one of the largest Pittsburgh-based owners of subsidized properties in the region. Washington manages the company’s portfolio and handles its relationships with the federal government, city and Urban Redevelopment Authority. Its housing complexes and homes, which include rental and for-purchase properties, are spread throughout western Pennsylvania, with many in the Hill District, Homewood, Homestead and Braddock.
“Many of the units we acquire require a lot of work,” Washington explains. “We are primarily developers (of existing and new buildings) and property managers. We use outside architectural firms for design.”
Washington represents the new generation of an organization with a long-standing history of providing housing for Pittsburgh’s most at-risk population, according to associates who work closely with her. ARHCO sits on a major portfolio of properties that includes multifamily complexes, duplexes, row homes and single-family homes. Washington’s goal is to rehabilitate many of the aging properties with modern amenities that improve energy efficiency and offer space that fosters community engagement, she says. Finding ways to affordably restore many of these aging complexes will be among her challenges, associates say.
Washington is approaching the challenge through a strong network of civic connections. A Pittsburgh native, alumna of The Ellis School and graduate of Brown University, Washington earned master’s degrees in business administration and education from Stanford University.
Jeremy Leventhal grew up in a family of prominent Boston developers with building in his bones. His grandfather was real-estate tycoon Norman B. Leventhal, whose firm, The Beacon Companies, shaped Boston’s waterfront in the 1990s. His father, Alan Leventhal, followed into the family business and later founded the influential and successful investment firm, Beacon Capital Partners.
Leventhal studied economics at Northwestern University and the London School of Economics before entering real-estate investment banking in the Manhattan offices of Morgan Stanley. He founded Faros Properties six years ago with his brother, Alexander, and partner Elliot Gould.
The abundant opportunities for large-scale projects in Pittsburgh intrigued the Boston partners. They tested the waters by purchasing, renovating and renaming City View Apartments — formerly Washington Plaza, near the Consol Energy Center in the Lower Hill District — the 1964 structure designed by world-famous architect I.M. Pei.
As that project neared completion, Faros Properties began scouting for an even bigger challenge. The struggling Allegheny Center complex on the North Side captured their attention. Faros crunched the numbers and waded in slowly in 2014, purchasing, rehabbing and rebranding four once-ailing buildings as Park View Apartments. All of the apartments are leased.
Leventhal says he loves the location of the complex, with its proximity to Downtown, transportation, hospitals, schools and cultural institutions. “We had a high degree of confidence in the long-term viability of the market and we really wanted to be here,” he says.
The $250 million transformation of Allegheny Center represents the largest urban-renewal project in acreage and square-footage underway in the city. When finished this year, the 1.4 million square-foot complex — called Nova Place — aims to be a global campus for corporate and high-tech companies with ample space for offices, restaurants, tech incubators, fitness centers, retail and open-air events. The transformation will be swift. To keep it moving, the developer, 31, spends three days a week in Pittsburgh and commutes to New York City, where he lives.
Tenants so far include PNC, Bank of America, tech accelerator Innovation Works and Pittsburgh-based Matrix Solutions. Tech incubator Alloy 26 has signed up seven local tech startups; Radiant Hall, an artists’ collaborative, also has taken up residence.
One challenge will be nearly 200 yards of concrete courtyard that shields a 3,000-car parking garage below the complex. Leventhal sees an opportunity to turn an eyesore into a public space that restores walkability to the neighborhood.
He intends to turn the paved courtyard into a lushly landscaped park with pathways and seating. Leventhal’s grandfather accomplished a similar feat when he demolished a 2 ½ story parking garage, an eyesore in Boston, buried it and put a public park on top, the Norman B. Leventhal Park in Post Office Square.
“The most successful developers — like my grandfather and father — have been instrumental in improving entire communities,” says Leventhal. “Projects shouldn’t just be a stand-alone asset. Projects should be a part of the fabric of a community.”
The Davis Company
“I don’t think there’s any Pittsburgh native who doesn’t know the Union Trust Building,” says Jonathan Davis. “It’s the most elegant and important privately owned building in the city. My aunt ate there everyday.”
So it happened that a boy who grew up in Squirrel Hill (his mother still lives in Oakland) and became a Boston developer (who knows Alan Leventhal, Jeremy’s father) bought the Union Trust building in a sheriff’s sale for $14 million in 2014.
The purchase pulled at his heartstrings. “The intrinsic quality of the building sets it apart from any other historic building in Pittsburgh,” he says. “Being involved in this project is a big coming-home for me.”
Davis, 63, is founder and CEO of The Davis Companies, a real-estate investment, management and development firm with a $4 billion portfolio that includes 150 projects. A 1975 graduate of Brandeis University, Davis stayed in Boston after college and still lives there.
Built by Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Clay Frick and designed by Frederick Osterling in 1917, the Union Trust Building was conceived as a shopping arcade with offices. In the 1920s, it became the banking headquarters of the Union Trust Company. Its mansard roof with terracotta dormers and two chapel-like towers were designed in homage to St. Paul Catholic Cathedral, once located there. The interior is arranged around a central rotunda and crowned by a stained-glass dome.
The firm plans $100 million in improvements to the eight-floor, 517,000 square-foot building. “It will be unlike anything that exists in downtown Pittsburgh,” Davis says.
Davis envisions 40,000 square feet of retail space, at least five restaurants, two conference facilities, a fitness center and basement parking for 109 cars. Among the first leases are the Pittsburgh offices of tech companies Jawbone and TrueFit and the law firm Blank Rome.
Moveable storefronts will allow activity to spill between interior colonnades. A chandelier will hang in the rotunda. The building is scheduled to open on Memorial Day, with retail tenants moving in around Labor Day.
“To be a part of the rebirth of Pittsburgh is exciting for me — even though I am now a Patriots’ fan.”
Gregg Perelman & Todd Reidbord
When Gregg Perelman (top) and Todd Reidbord founded Walnut Capital nearly 20 years ago, the Pittsburgh market was ripe with opportunity.
Since then, Walnut CEO Perelman, 59, and Principal and President Reidbord, 57, have aggressively amassed a portfolio of 2,500 dwellings, retail and commercial properties worth more than $500 million, changing the face of many urban neighborhoods by populating them with pet-friendly, luxury apartments and townhouses packed with roof decks, fitness centers, yoga studios, pools and shared bicycles.
In 2010, the Shadyside firm made an indelible mark on Larimer by transforming a former Nabisco factory into Bakery Square, attracting Google and other tenants and paving the way for revitalizing the East End.
“People want to live in the city,” says Perelman, of Squirrel Hill. “Our goal is to try and build our projects around neighborhoods. People want walkability. They want to live healthier lifestyles. I want to help build a city that my three daughters will want to live in.”
Among its projects: The Foundry at 41st —182 luxury apartments in Lawrenceville — plans to open in 2017. Fort Willow Developers is the owner/developer; Walnut Capital is an equity-and-development partner and will manage the $30 million complex on the site of a former foundry. Much of the project will be new construction, but a machine shop will be restored and recovered steel beams will span a public commons.
The Penn at Walnut on Highland is a $14-million, 78-unit high-end apartment project on Penn Avenue in East Liberty. At the request of the city, Walnut meticulously deconstructed and preserved the terracotta facades from the original buildings on the site and soon will add the facades to the new building, says Perelman. Walnut also plans several “affordable-housing projects” in partnership with the city in the near future. “We think it’s a very important part of being a neighborhood developer,” says Perelman.
While some critics have questioned the aesthetic appeal of some of the firm’s projects for failing to reflect the tenor of their neighborhoods, Perelman says those detractors often fail to see the value of architectural and sustainable elements at play. The company also has adhered to standards for renovating historic buildings, some of which had been long-vacant, he notes. “It often comes down to economics,” he says. “We have to be practical and responsible in how we build things. Many of our projects are green and LEED-certified — sometimes green development looks different.”
Debra Smit is a business journalist and frequent contributor to Pittsburgh Magazine. She writes about the intersection of tech, commerce, development, innovation and leadership. Her work has appeared in Fast Company, OZY and the Washington Post. Follow her @debrsmit. Valentina Vavasis contributed.