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.
by Valentina Vavasis
Lawrenceville, Garfield and East Liberty are among the ‘Burgh’s hottest neighborhoods in 2016. But while plenty of enterprising businesses and trendsetting individuals are flocking to those areas, forward-thinking locals and companies also are looking ahead to the neighborhoods that could contain the most desirable real estate in 2026. We offer our predictions on communities that will rank among the city’s most popular 10 years down the line.
Remember when the South Side was the upstart neighborhood? Or when Shadyside was the posh place to be — before East Liberty stole its limelight with the promise of hot restaurants, boutique hotels and tech incubators and companies? The Strip District has upped its cachet with condos priced at a cool $2 million, a short walk from popular fresh food markets. Lawrenceville rocks with pricey urban-chic dwellings, shops and eateries. Bloomfield is blooming with young writers, architects and musicians drawn to farmers markets, yoga and cortados.
What makes a neighborhood hot? Intuitively, it would seem to have the qualities that make it a neighborhood where people want to BE — to live, work or have fun. The American Planning Association — the independent national organization that provides leadership in developing vital communities — defines the characteristics of a “great neighborhood” as having a variety of residential and commercial uses, being accessible by bike, car, bus or foot, and containing a mix of interesting architectural and design features. The ideal neighborhood encourages human contact and social activity, promotes community involvement and safety, and is environmentally and economically sustainable.
“Being a ‘hot’ neighborhood is no longer about attracting high-tech people, hipsters and brewhouses,” says Chris Koch, CEO of the Design Center, a Pittsburgh nonprofit organization that focus on community planning and design. “Now it’s about thinking regionally, 10 to 20 years into the future, to create a diverse mix of people and incomes, strong residential and commercial uses, and considering true environmental sustainability.”
So, which Pittsburgh neighborhoods are likely to be the next big destinations? We analyze four neighborhoods with great potential that we predict will be hot five to 10 years down the line, based on applying these questions:
- Is it near jobs, transportation hubs or other “happening” neighborhoods?
- Is the community actively planning for its future?
- Are major investments or improvements in the pipeline?
- Based on anecdotal evidence from insiders, are newcomers already starting to buy properties there?
Although each of these neighborhoods has its own history, personality and ambitions, all are home to long-time, faithful residents, who keenly want additional neighborhood investment while remaining wary of the potential negative effects of gentrification. Important decisions about the future of these communities are being made right now, within and outside their borders. If smart planning continues, these may be the next hot ’hoods.
AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID HEATH •• NEIGHBORHOOD PHOTOGRAPHY BY RENEE ROSENSTEEL
Thirty-five years ago, architect Stephen R. Lee, now a Carnegie Mellon University professor and head of its School of Architecture, purchased his home on Brereton Street in Polish Hill. He and his girlfriend, architect and future business partner Yoko Tai, went to work rehabbing the long-abandoned home (which, thanks to watchful neighbors, had not a single broken window after being vacant for 20 years). Lee fondly tells the story, “We decided to get married in the unfinished first-floor storefront and invite all of the new neighbors. They showed up in spades, with the local butcher contributing meats, the neighborhood ladies cooking and cleaning, and everyone bringing presents and beer; we stayed up celebrating late into the night. It was a true Polish Hill welcome.”
Years later, in 2007, the couple purchased another down-and-out building for their growing architectural practice. In 2013, their adult daughter, Oka Tai-Lee, purchased and began to rehab another old Polish Hill gem (the former “pretzel-oven building”). She made it her residence when she moved back to Pittsburgh in 2015.
Immaculate Heart of Mary Church
Perched on the slope between two districts — Strip and Hill — Polish Hill’s character and reputation as a close-knit community have withstood the test of time through a relatively seamless transition in recent years as younger, artistic folks have joined its longtime residents. Among them is Heidi Tucker, 36, who bought a house near Lee and his family seven years ago. A former barista in the neighborhood’s 5-year-old Lili Café, she purchased the café three years ago and expanded its menu to include more vegetarian and vegan options. Today, she says she is pleased to draw a comfortable mix of customers — old-timers and newcomers, elderly and young. “Polish Hill feels like Sesame Street,” she says.
“It has a small-town feel, and everyone knows each other.”
Nearly 5,000 people lived in Polish Hill in the 1950s. A half-century later, its population had dwindled to 1,466 persons in 2000 and 1,274 persons in 2010, according to the U.S. Census. Despite that decline in population, neighborhood housing values appear to be steadily rising from a median sale price of $40,500 for a single-family home in 2000 to $55,708 in 2008, according to city neighborhood-data records. Real-estate websites such as zillow.com, trulia.com and realtor.com show various 2014-2015 median home prices in the neighborhood, but all exceed $100,000. In addition, Polish Hill recently lost its eligibility for federal Community Development Block Grant funding because its population exceeded new standards for median income, with more than 51 percent of residents earning 80 percent or more of area median income. Clearly, something is happening.
(left) Gooski’s; Lili Café
So why is this neighborhood poised for growth? Because Polish Hill is a safe, welcoming community, located less than a 10-minute walk to the bustling Strip District and Lawrenceville neighborhoods and less than a 10-minute ride to Oakland and Downtown. From its heart, it’s a short walk to the Port Authority East Busway station near the intersection of Liberty and Herron Avenues — and the site of the former Pittsburgh Brewing Company, which of late has been the subject of much buzz about future development.
Polish Hill is unlikely ever to be a commercial center. It’s a hilly neighborhood with great views on an intimate scale, making it more suited as a “bedroom community” for people who work nearby. The landmark Immaculate Heart of Mary Church on Brereton Street has watched over the neighborhood through every generation since its construction in 1896. Single-family housing stock primarily consists of small (less than 2,000 square feet) homes — many of them built more than 50 years ago — making it affordable for first-time buyers and rehabbers. Businesses are typically first-floor storefronts, and relative newcomers such as Lili’s, Mind Cure Records and Copacetic Comics Company, along with longtime favorite Gooski’s bar, draw young folks from all over the city.
Polish hill skyline
Polish Hill’s residents are proactive about planning their community’s future. With funding from the Design Center and Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development, they hired well-regarded architecture and urban planning firm Pfaffmann + Associates to undertake a community master plan, completed in 2011. The planning process involved a series of community meetings and discussions, leading to specific recommendations for the neighborhood that include improving key intersections and traffic flow, renovating small-scale buildings and repurposing a few larger properties, including the former Immaculate Heart of Mary School. Thoughtful and detailed implementation of the plan’s recommendations will be key to its future.
Uptown is another neighborhood with a location that is beyond ideal: Running along the Monongahela River in a long, narrow strip, Uptown (parts of which are historically known as “The Bluff” or “Soho”) is adjacent to the Hill District and connects Oakland to Downtown. Motorists and pedestrians who travel from Oakland toward Downtown on Fifth Avenue encounter Uptown’s glorious, sparkling mosaic “Welcome” sign, created by neighborhood resident and sculptor James Simon, on the left near the Birmingham Bridge. Visual beauty continues, as Uptown is rich in stunning, historic structures.
Consol Energy Center
Early Uptown rehabbers include husband and wife Dale and Jeanne McNutt. They have spearheaded such creative projects as the restoration of 1940 Fifth Ave., a former Elks hall that houses their residence and the headquarters of StartUptown, a shared working space for more than 30 tech startups, and Hack Pittsburgh, a 40-member maker space. Dale, the founder and executive director of StartUptown, also co-developed the former Paramount Film Exchange building on the Boulevard of the Allies as an extension of the nonprofit group’s campus. Jeanne is executive director of Uptown Partners of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit organization with a mission to “build a vibrant community” focusing on responsible development, sustainability, preservation, social equity and the arts.
Uptown’s path toward redevelopment also has been led by a number of noteworthy multifamily developments, all relatively near to each other, including:
- Flats on Fifth, at Fifth Avenue and Marion Street, providing 74 units of rental housing to be offered this summer
- Uptown Lofts, also on Fifth Avenue between Seneca and Jumonville streets, completed in 2015 and offering 47 units of affordable rental housing
- Mackey Lofts renovation, on Forbes Avenue at Miltenberger Street, offering 43 rental units, some of which are designed to accommodate disabled residents
- Fifth Avenue School Lofts, on Fifth Avenue at Miltenberger Street, a historic rehabilitation of a former school built in 1894. Completed in 2013, it contains 65 loft units.
Uptown garnered national attention in 2014 when EcoDistricts, a nonprofit environmental group based in Portland, Ore., included it (along with West Oakland) as one of eight neighborhoods nationwide to be designated as an EcoDistrict. As a result, the city and federal governments provided funding for the neighborhood to develop an environmentally sustainable master plan through collaboration of local residents, business and property owners, and expert urban-design consultants; the plan is scheduled to be completed over the next 18 months. The Port Authority of Allegheny County also is undertaking a major study of Uptown, Downtown, Oakland and the East End to consider creating a Bus Rapid Transit system in these neighborhoods in which buses would operate in their own dedicated lanes, with off-board methods of payment, fewer stops and other features aimed at making the system more efficient.
James Simon’s sculptures on Gist Street
So what are Uptown’s challenges? Despite its appealing proximity to Downtown, Duquesne University, Consol Energy Center and UPMC Mercy hospital, Uptown is bisected by heavily traveled Fifth and Forbes avenues; those arteries draw a steady level of fast-moving, noisy traffic. Planning efforts are likely to work toward moving many of those commuters from cars to buses and bicycles to reduce traffic and related environmental impacts.
Second, many of the fine historical buildings that once contributed to the architectural character of the neighborhood — and helped to earn its nickname “Soho,” after London’s Soho — have been torn down over the years and their sites paved over to become small parking lots, creating unsightly holes in the neighborhood’s urban fabric. In response, Uptown residents have worked with the Department of City Planning to develop restrictions and guidelines that exert oversight over development in the neighborhood, including demolitions and new construction.
As do many thriving neighborhoods, Uptown has its share of activist residents. Among them is Helen Perilloux, who worked closely with the city to develop the district guidelines after moving in 2008 from Friendship to Uptown, where her then-boyfriend, John Fleenor, lived. Fleenor, in turn, had relocated from Eugene, Ore., to work with Simon, the internationally known community artist and resident whose studio on Gist Street is easily identified by the giant King Kong sculpture on the garage.
Perilloux and Fleenor now are married, parents of two young children and owners of three homes, a detached garage and a small auto-repair garage in Uptown. “Uptown feels urban,” Perilloux says. “I like the grittiness. I also like that I can see the river and walk to five neighborhoods in a short time. I also appreciate that the neighborhood is striving to be better.”
Perilloux, a realtor with Coldwell Banker, in January 2015 became co-president of Uptown Partners of Pittsburgh; the other co-president is Mike Mrzlack. Perilloux says she appreciates that the recent loft projects in the neighborhood have been aimed at people with a variety of income levels and needs. As do many Uptown residents, she says she wants to see the neighborhood preserved and improved while maintaining its affordability for current residents. The mission statement of Uptown Partners reflects this sentiment in its goal for the neighborhood to be “equitable” and “mixed-income.”
Larimer (pronounced “Lahr-mer” by locals) takes its name from the founder of Denver, Colo. — Westmoreland County native William Larimer Jr., a settler, railroad tycoon, Kansas state senator and land developer. He built his home on what is now Larimer Avenue in order to be close to East Liberty, which by the mid-1800s was a wealthy neighborhood with a lively business district. Larimer Avenue remains the main thoroughfare through the neighborhood, and a visitor today would be hard-pressed to drive along it without pausing for a construction truck at work.
Surrounded on all sides by active neighborhoods including Highland Park, East Liberty, Shadyside and Point Breeze, Larimer is easily accessible by car or bus via its major boundary roads of Negley Run Boulevard and Washington Boulevard/Fifth Avenue as well as the major arteries of East Liberty Boulevard and Frankstown Avenue. Approximately 1,730 people live in Larimer, according to the U.S. Census; the neighborhood primarily is made up of single-family homes and vacant parcels of land, although some properties are devoted to light industry. It also contains a number of important churches and institutions, notably the 7,500-member Mount Ararat Baptist Church and the active Kingsley Association community center.
Larimer also is home to one of the most tenacious community activist groups around: The Larimer Consensus Group has worked with government officials, East Liberty Development Inc. and other neighboring community groups and residents to envision a new future. The 2010 Larimer Vision Plan, which follows years of strategy and organizing, catalogues the neighborhood’s problems over the last few decades. It cites the neighborhood’s high residential-vacancy rate (26 percent, according to the 2010 U.S. Census), aging housing stock, relatively poor visibility and poor “curb appeal.” Larimer also has no “Main Street” business district lined with neighborhood-serving shops.
In addition, Larimer historically has suffered from a higher crime rate than the other three neighborhoods featured here. In 2014 — the most recent year for which complete statistics were available from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police — 47 violent and 105 property crimes were reported in Larimer for a total of 152 crimes. To account for differences in size, neighborhood crime-rate comparisons typically are framed by percentage of population; Larimer’s crime rate was 8.8 percent, as compared with 4 percent or less for the other three neighborhoods on our list.
New, affordable housing developments are underway throughout Larimer
Still, Larimer in recent years has rebranded itself as the next green neighborhood with impressive aspirations, including increased energy efficiency and independence (think wind power, green buildings and solar cells), food security (expanding its existing community garden and creating an urban farm), green jobs and job training, healthier residents (better sidewalks, recreation facilities, playgrounds and lighting), and even a rainwater garden.
This aspirational planning paid off when Larimer garnered a high-profile, $30 million Federal Housing Administration grant in 2014 through the Choice Neighborhoods program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Larimer’s applicant team included St. Louis-based McCormack Baron Salazar as housing developer, and Urban Strategies as the partner that will focus on connecting residents to education, job training and employment opportunities. Competing against 43 neighborhoods from around the country, Larimer was one of only four winners of the competition. The funds will be used to build mixed-income housing and green spaces.
Private developer KBK Enterprises, with headquarters in Columbus and offices in Pittsburgh, also is undertaking one of the first major developments on vacant land, called Larimer Pointe. The project aims to provide 40 affordable units (single-family, duplexes, townhomes and apartments) and green space on 2.8 acres at Larimer Avenue and Meadow Street. Certified as an Enterprise Green Community, the project brims with green features, such as energy-efficient appliances and storm water-management interventions.
KBK also is partnering with local developer Emmett Miles on plans for a mixed-use project involving renovation of the vacant Larimer School, built in 1896 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Says KBK Assistant Vice President and Project Manager Jennifer DiNardo, “Larimer is a great community in which to develop because not only is there plenty of vacant land, it has great proximity to the commercial core of East Liberty. The LCG is really dedicated to change and [has branded itself] as a green community — something that is also important to us as developers.”
Hazelwood may be best known to outsiders as the former home of the sprawling coke works once owned by Jones & Laughlin Steel Co. and later LTV Steel. The last vestige of the steel industry in the city, it closed in 1998, leading to a now-familiar tale of post-industrial decline. In its heyday, Hazelwood was a bustling community of 30,000 people, and its streets were packed with churches, clubs and shops. Its first nickname was “Scotch Bottom” in a reference to its early settlers from Scotland, but it later became home to a variety of ethnicities including people of Hungarian, Italian, Slovak, Polish, Irish and African-American descent. The neighborhood had a population of 4,317 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census.
Hazelwood’s geography is unusual for a city neighborhood; its location alongside the Monongahela River and at the base of a hill creates natural isolation as well as enviable connections to nature. At the same time, its proximity to Oakland, Greenfield, Glen Hazel and Squirrel Hill make it even more desirable. Traveling by car to the business district at the heart of the neighborhood, however, means driving on congested, narrow Irvine Street/Second Avenue, Hazelwood’s sometimes two-lane “main street.” Only two Port Authority routes run along Second Avenue, and a bus trip from Oakland can take from 30 to 45 minutes. The issue of accessibility has not escaped the notice of local government officials, who are studying Hazelwood’s connections to Oakland via public transportation.
In the past 15 years, a number of improvements have occurred in the business district. That is due to such entities as the Hazelwood Initiative community group, private and nonprofit developers (such as Action Housing, Inc.), the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh; its new Second Avenue branch is a true community asset. In summer 2015, food activists helped to bring a farmers market to Hazelwood, which has not had a grocery store since 2009. This spring, Dylamato’s Market is completing its planned evolution from seasonal stand to year-round store at 5414 Second Ave. Next door, Lawrenceville’s popular French bakery La Gourmandine is working with Action Housing to open a retail store and production facility later this year.
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Hazelwood branch
Also underway is the redevelopment of the vacant Gladstone Middle School and its 7-acre site on Hazelwood Avenue. The Pittsburgh Board of Education recently sold the long-empty building to a consortium of nonprofit groups, including the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, Make It Right Foundation, Hazelwood Initiative, and the Center for Life for $250,000. (The district declined a competing $1.5 million offer from a private company, preferring the neighborhood-oriented proposal of the nonprofit buyer.) These civic-minded organizations have coordinated public discussions to set goals for repurposing the property. In addition to new affordable housing, there is talk of a community center, a job incubator and housing for artists.
“There is a lot of good ground work being done in Hazelwood to set standards for the future and to have active community involvement,” says Ernie Hogan, executive director of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group. “There are a lot of major investments lined up for the future, so we want to stay ahead of the curve by truly understanding what the community wants and setting the stage for the future.”
The “major investment” of which he speaks: the Almono project, a huge development that has generated enormous buzz. Almono — its name is derived from Pittsburgh’s three rivers — is a joint undertaking by the nonprofit Regional Industrial Development Corp. and the Richard King Mellon Foundation, The Heinz Endowments, the McCune Foundation and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. Together, these organizations purchased the 178-acre former industrial site and created a four-phase master plan that would create almost 1.5 million square feet of residential space, more than 2.5 million square feet of commercial space for retail, restaurants and a marina, and an industrial complex.
So far, project partners have drafted extensive plans, conducted community meetings, completed site cleanup and remediation of environmental contaminants, and started roads and utility installation, investing $27 million in improvements. At the end of 2015, the state Department of Community and Economic Development awarded a $2.25 million loan to pay for roads, underground utilities and other infrastructure needs. The project’s stated goals are to embrace current urban-design principles, which include creating value, ensuring diversity, designing vibrant urban places, engaging the natural environment and ensuring sustainability. Because of its size and newness, however, the development has spurred community concerns that it may cannibalize or compete with existing businesses and services.
The key challenge will be blending the old neighborhood and the new development in a way that benefits both — a challenge that already has received intensive scrutiny from both neighborhood residents and Almono officials. To that end, the master plan includes connecting Almono’s new streets to Hazelwood’s existing streets, ensuring the scale of new buildings is compatible with the old, creating pedestrian connections and access points to the river and guaranteeing new affordable-housing units alongside market-rate and upscale housing. This is definitely a project and a community to watch.
Pittsburgh Magazine contributor Valentina Vavasis is a real-estate development consultant and an adjunct professor in the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University. She has more than 25 years of experience in real-estate and community development. Debra Smit contributed.
3 Up-and-Coming Neighborhoods
Nova Place/Photos by renee rosensteel
BY DEBRA SMIT
The historic neighborhood of Allegheny Center is poised for a renaissance over the next 10 years.
Known as downtown Allegheny City at the turn of the 20th century — and home to many of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest citizens and cultural amenities — the neighborhood suffered from neglect and blight for the next 50 years after many of its affluent citizens moved north. Today, Faros Properties is opening up a long moribund complex — also previously known as Allegheny Center, now called Nova Place — and bringing a walkable and green commons, restaurants and more to the heart of the community.
Beyond the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and across from Allegheny Commons Park, two new developments will move forward in 2016. After several false starts, the Urban Redevelopment Authority selected TREK Development Group to develop the block at Federal Street and North Avenue anchored by the former Garden Theater. TREK also will coordinate the design with City of Asylum, a nonprofit writer’s community that plans to establish a $10 million literary home in the neighboring, historic Masonic Hall. That development, to be called Alphabet City, will feature a performance and workshop area, café, bookstore and apartments for visiting writers.
“These projects will create a ripple effect that will be felt all the way to [Allegheny General Hospital] and involve all of the major players [in the neighborhood],” says William Gatti of TREK. “All the public [and] private interests are aligning.”
East Busway Mural
With an ambitious vision for this community with great bones and bigger opportunities, Wilkinsburg leaders and groups such as the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp. are beginning to revive this historic borough on Pittsburgh’s eastern boundary.
A popular and populated suburb in the 1950s when 33,000 people lived here, the neighborhood of 2.3 square miles fell into decline over the next 65 years and has struggled from population loss and urban decay. By 2010, its population had shrunk by more than 50 percent, to 15,930, according to the U.S. Census. Today, local leaders are fighting back, focusing first on the revitalization of the long and narrow business district where 13 rehabilitated commercial buildings opened in 2015. As the vacant Wilkinsburg Train Station celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, a restoration project is underway with the help of a $1 million grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation. The community development group has launched a capital campaign to raise $750,000 in required matching funds.
(left) Biddle’s Escape, Nancy’s East End Diner
Obstacles lie ahead for Wilkinsburg and particularly for its school district, which has had to make hard choices due to decreasing enrollment, rising costs and structural repairs. In September, Wilkinsburg students in grades 6-12 will begin attending classes in the Pittsburgh Public Schools system. Two Wilkinsburg elementary schools will be renovated and remain open.
Recent partnerships struck with Pittsburgh for garbage and fire protection will help the borough to save money and offer residents better service. “We hope these partnerships will reduce taxes over the long term,” says Tracy Evans, executive director for the WCDC.
This former mill town has risen above economic challenges and flooding, both of which have battered the riverfront borough. A quiet transformation is now taking place in Millvale, a tiny community of single-family homes, duplexes and apartments.
Surrounded by rolling hills, the 0.7-square mile town of 3,700 people recently has welcomed a flock of new businesses, including two breweries, and one of the region’s best French bakeries. Millvale Borough Manager Amy Rockwell credits the “destination business district” for enticing businesses who are looking for locations close to Downtown at the right price. Others are drawn by the town’s growing reputation for its brewfests, entertainment, sustainable enterprises and bike trail that runs along the river from the city to Millvale Riverfront Park.
Insiders point to the Millvale Community Library, constructed by volunteers over six years and opened in 2013, as instrumental in galvanizing the community’s resurgence and serving as a springboard for a blitz of initiatives. Local leaders enlisted the consulting firm EvolveEA to explore more ways to spur growth, sustainability and development. The process gave birth to the PIVOT Project and the creation of green “ecodistricts” that have turned the neighborhood — once classified as a food desert — into a more self-reliant urban, solar-powered place.
The Millvale Community Development Corporation partnered with Farm Truck Foods to bring fresh foods to residents. An open-air farmer’s market operates in summer and moves into the Millvale Community Center in winter. The Gardens of Millvale program allows residents to rent garden space and grow vegetables and fresh fruits on borough-owned land that was destroyed by a fire in the late 1990s. A shared workspace for a variety of artists, Millvale Studios, operates on Grant Street. The Rivers Edge radio station broadcasts from the studio.
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.