This is the Man on a Mission to Revive Spring Garden
Chris Waraks aims to restore this North Side neighborhood, one house at a time.
Chris Waraks is an urban warrior of a different kind, using hammer and nails to transform neighborhoods. Now, the North Side resident is using those same tools to change lives.
Nearly two decades ago, Waraks was living in Greensburg and working as a contractor in new home construction, specializing in high-end upgrades, with his business, Mr. Renovation. Then the recession hit.
“We were taking out builder-grade kitchens and installing higher-grade kitchens,” Waraks recalls. “When 2009 hit, everything dried up for us.”
As it turned out, a home purchase Waraks and his wife, Tammy, had made on Spring Hill a few years prior would end up steering their lives in a completely different direction.
“We moved into a house that we owned free and clear; we bought my grandparents’ house from my family — honestly, because I didn’t want to see it go to a flipper,” Waraks says. “We decided to just move down here.”
Like many Pittsburgh neighborhoods, Spring Hill is a small community that sits atop a hill. The under-the-radar neighborhood is just three miles from Downtown. Despite great views of the city, many locals don’t even know it exists.
In the valley below it is Spring Garden — a community dating back to the early 1800s. Settled by German and Austrian immigrants, its residents often worked in the neighborhood’s rendering factories, slaughterhouses and tanneries. The neighborhood architecture was mainly simple — frame row houses dotted with classic Victorian beauties built by some of the more successful businessmen who settled in the area.
In the 1960s, Spring Garden’s population began a steady decline with the city’s suburban exodus. From the 1980s to 2010, the neighborhood saw double-digit declines top more than 30% in some decades until 2010, when there were just 884 residents left in what had become a den of drug activity, abandoned houses and squatters.
“Spring Hill, it’s like being in the suburbs,” Waraks says. “But Spring Garden had been left for so long. There was so much drug activity and crime down there. When people started visiting me, they said, ‘It’s too bad you have to go through that to get here.’”
The neighborhood’s reputation made Waraks and his wife wonder what they could do to improve the community in a mindful way.
That’s when Waraks met Kim Basick. She had fallen in love with the neighborhood and purchased an early 1800s-era row house on Peralta Street. She went on to buy several more properties on the street that she turned into rental properties.
Basick says she ran into Waraks in March 2014, when she went to the Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show in search of a company to help her upgrade her rental properties. Waraks stood out from the other contractors she met that day.
“He had a small, 8-by-10 booth that had all these antique tools,” Basick says. “I told him about my project and he said, ‘I would be very interested. I live in Spring Hill.’”
Of the three contractors who showed up at her properties to give bids on the work, Waraks was the only one who brought paper, pencil and a tape measure.
“It was a no-brainer,” Basick says. “As we sat down to sign the contract, he said, ‘Maybe we could go into business together. You own all of the properties down here, maybe we could change the community.’”
A partnership was formed and their first renovation project, at 915 Peralta St., won a design contest with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in May 2016.
“That was our initial project in the Spring Garden area. We really started trying to set the bar for what was going on in the city but wasn’t happening there,” Waraks says, referring to the frenzied building activity of Lawrenceville and the East End happening just across the Allegheny River.
“From that point on, it was us and history,” Basick adds.
Waraks’ construction team included his son, Kyle, an architect who once spent summers on sites with him, and long-time crew leader Bob Sobocinski. Together, they went on to renovate eight houses on Peralta Street, two on nearby Concord Street and one on Spring Garden Avenue. Then, Waraks tackled a condemned, historic house in Fineview that was featured in “This Old House” magazine. That renovation garnered national attention.
As each of Waraks’ renovations sold and urban homesteaders started moving in, the trajectory of the neighborhood began to change. Waraks renovated a corner building for a coffee shop that his wife, Tammy, ran for several years; the shop is still in operation today under new owners. He also mobilized a team to clean up a local park that was central to drug activity.
“No one was taking responsibility for the park down there,” Waraks says. “I worked out a deal with The Home Depot; they gave me the materials at cost. I worked with the Steel City Boxing crew to remove and rebuild the fence, and Junk King owner Ed Stripay hauled it all away for free to promo a ‘Clean Up America’ campaign.”
Lisa McAnany, president of the board of directors for the Community Alliance of Spring Garden & East Deutschtown organization, says combating blight is one of the community’s biggest issues. She is grateful to Waraks and his crew for their vested interest in truly reviving the neighborhood while preserving its original details.
“As a community group, we have seen a lot of bad flippers come in; you know, putting new siding on old, rotted siding,” McAnany says. “Chris just raises the bar and does everything right.”
Waraks’ renovation at 926 Peralta was the last “big money project house” as he turns to training others to continue the neighborhood transformation. He is currently working with Reimagine Reentry on an incubator program that works with people being released from prison. Reimagine Reentry will take the workers through a six-week program learning OSHA 10 and basic construction skills, including construction math and first aid, Waraks says.
Trainees will have the option to apply to Waraks’ team renovating blighted, abandoned house while working alongside skilled tradespeople. Waraks says he is seeking grants and donations as the renovation costs will be higher than the resale value of the homes. Some properties also will be used as transitional housing for the trainees, who will receive services and support during the program.
“We talked to Chris about the Workforce Development Program he wants to get up and running,” McAnany adds. “We think it is important because it will respect the history of the community.”
As for the future, Waraks’ vision is for Spring Garden to operate as it did when it was a thriving neighborhood.
“Eight years ago, our focus was to rebuild the community,” he says. “We took a big chunk out of that. “Our goal was to always not just to have these higher-priced houses. We want the lawyer to live next to the garbage man. That is the community that we want to see — the average working-class Joe out on his stoop having a beer with his doctor.”
To read more about the dramatic restoration of 926 Peralta Street in Spring Garden, visit here.