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8/26/21: RIDC to take on redevelopment of Carrie Furnace site in Rankin, Swissvale
A long-quiet former steel mill site may ring with the sounds of construction next year, following a tentative pact between the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County [RAAC] and a nonprofit developer.
The RAAC board voted to turn over 75 developable acres of the 168-acre Carrie Furnace site, which spans Rankin and Swissvale, to the Regional Industrial Development Corporation [RIDC].
County Development Director Lance Chimka told the RAAC board that RIDC would promptly start infrastructure work, and then construct two buildings of around 50,000 square feet near the north end of the Rankin Bridge.
The first building would be suited to technology, office and light industrial uses, and would be constructed without necessarily having a tenant or tenants lined up. Construction would start next year.
“We really feel like the industrial demand in the region is very, very strong,” said Chimka, adding that a new building would serve the purpose of “kick-starting the entire development.”
The initial two buildings would be the first of several phases of redevelopment of the site.
RIDC has also been working with the Pittsburgh Film Office on plans to build a cluster of movie sound stages on the site, and that could continue in future phases, Chimka said.
He said the county has already invested $35 million into the Carrie Furnace site, raising it above the flood plain, upgrading utilities, remediating environmental issues and building a flyover ramp to get vehicles over an active rail line.
Carrie Furnace is “a sizeable project for RAAC and this is an important moment,” Chimka said.
Terms of the transfer were not disclosed, but the RAAC board’s vote allows both that authority and RIDC to enter a due diligence period, Chimka said. The board voted to give Chimka and the RAAC solicitor approval to reach specific terms.
The county in 2019 issued a request for proposals from developers interested in the site. RIDC and the Pittsburgh Film Office responded, as did The Davis Companies, of Boston. The Davis Companies later withdrew.
8/13/21: Landlord advocates who beat back $65-per-unit fee say $10.82 may also be too much
The City of Pittsburgh is seeking court approval to launch its long-stymied rental registration program and to charge a fee that could be around $10.82 per unit, but faces continued opposition from landlord groups.
City officials have sought, since 2008, to place a fee on rentals, which would pay for a proposed regular inspection regimen. Organizations including the Landlord Service Bureau, the Realtors Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh [RAMP] and the Apartment Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh have challenged that effort in court. They have dubbed the fee a “renters tax” because it would be passed on to tenants.
Last month Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Joseph James ruled that the city hadn’t presented compelling evidence that its proposed fee of $45 to $65 per unit – depending on the number of units in a given building – was in line with the actual cost of running a registration-and-inspection system. He called that fee “excessive” and “an impermissible tax,” citing testimony by an expert hired by the landlord groups, who estimated the true cost at between $10.82 and $12.70 per unit.
Assistant Solicitor Lawrence Baumiller responded that the city “wants to move forward with enforcing the rental registration ordinance as soon as it can,” and asked James to amend his decision to explicitly allow a $10.82-per-unit fee. In the alternative, Baumiller wrote, the court could “set the rental registration fee that it finds permissible.”
This week, however, RAMP responded that a $10.82-per-unit fee “may also be too high,” depending on how the costs of implementation are calculated. The court doesn’t have the power to set the fee, RAMP’s attorney wrote, so it’s up to the city to pass new legislation if it wants to do so.
There is, as yet, no indication on the court docket of a hearing or any other process in advance of ruling.
8/12/21: URA moves ahead on affordable housing in Garfield, North Side, Hazelwood, Hill
A developer whose plan was stymied in the spring found success in the summer, as the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA] board made short work of an agenda dominated by affordable housing-related transactions, including one that aims to transform an abandoned block in Garfield.
Module Design Inc. sought, in April, to buy 11 empty lots via the URA. It planned to build a dozen homes for sale, including three that would be reserved for lower-income households.
Though the homes would repopulate an empty block of Rosetta Street and a swath of Broad Street, the board said that the plan didn’t include enough affordability. That was especially important in a neighborhood in which long-time residents face pressure from increasing property values.
Module returned four months later with a different plan, in which it would build three or four affordable houses among 10 total houses on Rosetta. On Broad, it plans to work with the City of Bridges Community Land Trust to build two affordable houses.
“This will add to the strength of that community, and will also add to the opportunities to make home ownership available to families,” said Richard Snipe, deputy director of the URA-affiliated Pittsburgh Housing Development Corp. He said the eventual buyers of the affordable houses would likely have mortgage payments below $800 per month.
“Garfield should really not just be considered a low-income neighborhood in need of market-rate development at this point,” said URA board Chair Sam Williamson. “It is a really rapidly changing neighborhood where housing prices are increasing and homes are being flipped.”
The board authorized staff to negotiate the sale of nine lots on Rosetta to Module, with two parcels on Broad likely to be the subject of later action.
In a meeting that clocked in at a little more than an hour, the board also:
- Gave final authorization to $16 million in bond borrowing in support of the 68-unit third phase of the renovation of the Northside Properties Residences apartments, which are scattered across Central Northside, California-Kirkbride and Perry South
- Approved the sale of five parcels on Rose Street in the Crawford Roberts section of the Hill District to R. Kyndall Development Group, for construction of six townhouses, including two with guaranteed affordability
- Authorized sales of parcels along Hazelwood Avenue and Chatsworth Avenue to City of Bridges for construction of a dozen houses, all expected to be affordable in the long-term, in a project estimated to cost $4.8 million and to involve multiple subsidies
- Voted for a $750,000 loan to Cleveland-based Salus Development, to help finance a full renovation of the Sheptytsky Arms Apartments, which has 49 affordable units, in Brighton Heights.
8/12/21: Avenues of Hope begins to generate action
Remember the City of Pittsburgh’s Avenues of Hope initiative, announced in October, which aimed to spur reinvestment in commercial corridors in seven mostly-Black parts of Pittsburgh? As the initiative awaits dollars from both federal budget earmarks and the American Rescue Plan, the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA] is selling land for one related project while the agency paves the way for others.
Sankofa Square, on Centre Avenue in the Middle Hill District, is expected to include 45,000 square feet of commercial space on three floors, to include Smoketown Culinary, a launch site for local food entrepreneurs. Sankofa Group, led by developer Irv Williams, expects construction to cost $9.1 million. The URA board approved the first step: sale of nine parcels to Sankofa Group for $186,000.
The board also gave its authorization to a new loan program, solely for commercial development on, or adjacent to, the seven chosen avenues. Developers can borrow as much as $200,000, at 3% interest, which does not have to be repaid until the property sells or until 20 years has elapsed, whichever comes first.
URA staff told the board that it is about to issue a request for proposals from planning and economic development consultants who would help to set the stage for redevelopment along Chartiers Avenue in Elliott and Perrysville Avenue in Perry North. The chosen consultants would gather data and help to craft business development strategies for those districts.
8/9/21: Northside Leadership Conference parting ways with longtime director
An organization that has helped to guide redevelopment in 14 Pittsburgh neighborhoods for four decades will seek a new executive director, following a meeting last week at which the board coalesced around a change in focus.
Mark Fatla will step down as executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference [NSLC], which he has led for 15 years, effective Sept. 3. The NSLC board plans to name an interim director within 30 days and then start the hunt for a permanent replacement.
“There was a consensus that the Northside Leadership Conference needed a new direction and leadership,” Art Perkins, a member of the NSLC’s executive committee, told PublicSource. Perkins is also vice president of the East Allegheny Community Council. The NSLC board wants to emphasize “just trying to make the neighborhood a good place for everybody, like all residents [of every] social [status], economic status, racial status.”
Board member John Canning said the NSLC had great success in the communities just north of the North Shore. He added that there was a sense on the board that the conference needed to redouble efforts in a tier of neighborhoods further north which “have been pretty stagnant.”
“At this point in time, we probably need to have new leadership that really has a commitment to those neighborhoods,” said Canning, who is also vice president of the Allegheny City Society.
The NSLC board discussed the leadership change Aug. 4, a month after it ordered a review of Fatla’s performance. “The vote was a pretty solid vote to seek new leadership,” said Canning.
Fatla had no immediate comment.
The NSLC works to coordinate and support the efforts of 14 mostly-volunteer-run organizations in the city’s northern neighborhoods, aiming to spur housing and business development, plus enhance parks, public safety, health and wellness. Its annual budget in recent years has hovered between $1 million and $1.6 million, and it has a staff of six.
In a press release, the conference emphasized accomplishments during Fatla’s tenure, including:
- An agreement with the Rivers Casino to invest $3 million in the North Side neighborhoods
- Improvements to Allegheny Commons Park
- Relaunch of the Northside Public Safety Council
- Reopening of the Penn Brewery
- Support for construction of new houses and apartments.
“It is bluntly indisputable that the North Side neighborhoods have made great strides over the last 40 years and I attribute much of that progress to the existence of the Northside Leadership Conference,” said John DeSantis, an NSLC board member who also served on the Allegheny West Civic Council.
8/9/21: Eviction curbs back in place following 156 cases in two days
A brief pause in federal restrictions on evictions last week resulted in a mini-surge in filings by landlords in Allegheny County.
On Aug. 2 and Aug. 3, landlords filed 156 cases against tenants in the county – a two-day total that was nearly ⅓ the number filed in all of July.
In July, the county saw the highest number of landlord-tenant filings in 10 months. The September rise in filings came during a prior gap in the various federal and state eviction moratoriums that have been in place for much of the last 17 months, since the COVID-19 pandemic reached the region.
Through July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] had largely barred the eviction of tenants who could show that they had been economically harmed by the pandemic and had applied for rent relief. That order did not prohibit the filing of the landlord-tenant cases that often end in eviction. It did, however, generally keep district judges from approving the ejection of renters, and case filings have remained well below historic norms of around 1,000 per month.
In July, landlords filed 500 cases against Allegheny County tenants.
The CDC allowed the order to expire July 31. With COVID-19 case counts rising amid the increasing prevalence of new variants, though, the agency issued a similar replacement order on Aug. 3. It runs through Oct. 3.
On Aug. 4, Allegheny County President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark wrote to the state Supreme Court, asking for authority to slow down eviction cases through the end of October. Judge Clark wrote that she wants to allow for postponements of eviction proceedings while the parties pursue rent relief. The Supreme Court granted the request on Aug. 6.
Driven largely by filings on Aug. 2 and 3, Allegheny County’s new case tally for this month stood at 229 cases by the weekend.
— Nick Tommarello contributed.
8/5/21: Housing advisory panel meeting sets stage for URA vote next week
Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority is expected to vote next week on proposals to merge two affordable housing programs and streamline others, in the wake of an advisory board’s review of the changes.
The city’s For-Sale Development Program, funded through deed transfer taxes, would be merged with the URA’s Pittsburgh Housing Construction Fund, according to Evan Miller, a URA housing policy manager who briefed the Housing Opportunity Fund [HOF] Advisory Board.
That means developers interested in building homes for sale to households of modest income would:
- Fill out one application, rather than two
- Tap a maximum of $100,000 (up from $70,000) for new construction of homes, while the $70,000 cap on aid for rehabilitation of existing homes would remain at $70,000
- Sell the resulting houses to households earning up to 115% of area median income – up from the current limit of 80% of AMI.
The For-Sale Development Program, which received an allocation of $735,000 this year, had been a slow-starting part of the city’s Housing Opportunity Fund effort. Mayor William Peduto has pushed for more HOF support for affordable home ownership.
The URA board could vote on that change on Aug. 12 and invite developer applications later in the month, Miller said.
The HOF’s $2.3 million per year Housing Assistance Program, which helps current homeowners to make improvements, could also change with:
- Deferred loan amounts rising from $25,000 to $30,000, in addition to $5,000 grants aimed at lead remediation
- Debt phasing out if the owner remains in the house for 10 years and disappearing entirely after 20, rather than remaining in place for 30 years
- Homeowners permitted to choose their own contractors, subject to URA approval and inspections, instead of waiting for pre-approved contractors, some of whom have long waiting lists.
“Increasing the budget is incredibly helpful,” said Adrienne Walnoha, an HOF Advisory Board member. “Allowing for smaller [contracting] businesses, community businesses, to become part of the program, allowing folks to have more expanded choice, shorten that [wait list] timeline, is incredibly impactful.”
Administration of another HOF initiative, the Housing Stabilization Program, is expected to move from the URA to the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. Armed with a $575,000 allocation this year, that program provides funds, for as long as three months, to households facing temporary economic circumstances that threaten their access to housing. The URA expects to stop taking applications for that program on Aug. 15, in preparation for county administration starting Sept. 1, according to Jeremy Carter, the URA’s HOF program manager.
The HOF would continue to fund the program. The transfer of its administration could become a model for more city-county collaboration on some other URA social service-type programs, Carter told the advisory board.
The URA is also planning to simplify and expand a Small Landlord Fund that helps to finance improvements to rental properties, according to Carter.
8/5/21: Parts of Downtown’s cooperative heating system to be sold
The steam heating cooperative which has, for decades, warmed scores of Downtown Pittsburgh buildings will sell some of its assets to an entity controlled by Princeton, N.J.-based Clearway Energy.
Members of the Pittsburgh Allegheny County Thermal [PACT] cooperative have approved the sale to Energy Center Pittsburgh, according to a statement supplied to PublicSource by PACT Operations Manager Timothy O’Brien. The statement did not detail the sale terms, other than to say that PACT and Energy Center Pittsburgh [ECP] are negotiating an agreement.
“PACT believes that the ECP system provides a long-term solution for the continued operation of district energy in Downtown Pittsburgh,” according to the statement, which also pledged “a smooth transition from the PACT system.”
District energy is the provision of power or heat to multiple consumers via a single system – a concept lauded by sustainability advocates for its efficiency.
PACT, created in 1983, brought Downtown’s aging steam plant and underground pipes under the ownership of a cooperative including the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. At its peak, PACT had more than 100 members, but has dwindled to half that size.
Allegheny County last year opted to leave PACT, inking its own agreement with Peoples Natural Gas to heat Downtown offices and the jail.
Energy Center Pittsburgh, a Clearway subsidiary, already has a steam plant in Uptown. Clearway representatives did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
PACT representatives did not immediately respond to questions about the disposition of any of the cooperative’s assets that may not be included in the sale.
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