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10/26/21: Staffing shortages have complicated maintenance, housing head to tell board

The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh will consider hiring maintenance workers from outside of the city, with a board vote on the measure set for Thursday. The authority has faced recent criticism regarding maintenance at its low-income housing complexes. Early this month, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found that over three years, more than half of the properties managed by the HACP failed federal Department of Housing and Urban Development inspections. Nationally, in the same time period, around 10% of similar facilities failed. Authority Executive Director Caster Binion told PublicSource that of 44 vacant positions at the agency, 26 are in the maintenance department. He said the COVID-19 pandemic drove a surge of retirements from that department. Amid a national staffing crisis, the authority has had a hard time filling posts, especially since its policies require that such employees live in the city. Binion said that staffing shortages have forced the authority to contract out plumbing and plastering work, but that hasn’t addressed all of the agency’s needs. “We’ve got to have staff to do some of this stuff,” he said.
Caster Binion, executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. (Courtesy of HACP)
Caster Binion, executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. (Courtesy of HACP)
Complicating matters, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development reimburses housing authority expenses for contractors at a lower rate than for employees. So when the agency shifts from in-house staff to contractors, it loses federal funds. He said that to address maintenance needs and improve its balance sheet, the authority hopes to attract applicants from the suburbs. “If I got five plumbers coming through the door, you think I’m going to turn them away?” Binion asked. “In this kind of market, I can’t afford to turn them away.” The authority board has ultimate say over whether the residency requirement is removed.

10/26/21: Demolition proposed for Oakland

The City Planning Commission will decide whether a prominent developer can demolish three Oakland townhouses. The three townhouses on the 100 block of Halket Street are owned by Walnut Capital, a developer with a large portfolio of Central Oakland rentals. Walnut Capital has asked the city to rezone 18 acres of Central Oakland and South Oakland, in preparation for a massive redevelopment dubbed Oakland Crossings. The three properties now before the City Planning Commission, though, are not part of the Oakland Crossings footprint.
These townhouses at 107-111 Halket Street, in Oakland, would be demolished according to a plan submitted by developer Walnut Capital to the City Planning Commission, with this photo, on Oct. 26, 2021.
These townhouses at 107-111 Halket Street, in Oakland, would be demolished according to a plan submitted by developer Walnut Capital to the City Planning Commission, with this photo, on Oct. 26, 2021.
Walnut bought the townhouses in preparation for its construction of the Innovation Research Tower, at the intersection of Halket and Fifth Avenue. The townhouses are vacant and dilapidated, according to Jonathan Kamin, an attorney for Walnut. “There is nothing in the property that is able to be saved or rehabbed,” he told the commission at a briefing. “We don’t know what we’re going to do with the property long-term,” Kamin added. “When we do know what we’re going to do with it, we will be happy to come back.” The commissioners had neither questions nor comments. The commission must vote on the demolition request because it is in a public realm district. A public hearing and vote is expected on Nov. 9.

10/18/21: Rankin and Swissvale site to be sold piecemeal to nonprofit developer

Allegheny County will sell portions of the Carrie Furnace mill site to the nonprofit Regional Industrial Development Corp. for $80,000 per acre, Development Director Lance told PublicSource. The 168-acre site sits mostly within Rankin and Swissvale, and roughly 100 acres are conceivably developable, according to a summary agreement Chimka shared with PublicSource.  The agreement divides the developable land into three tracts, and obligates RIDC to buy 39.5 acres near the Rankin Bridge, though it can do so piecemeal. RIDC then has the right, for 10 years, to make the first offers to buy the remaining tracts.
A concept plan for the redevelopment of the Carrie Furnace site, spanning Swissvale and Rankin, in which the eastern end of the site (to the right) would be developed first. (Courtesy of Allegheny County Department of Development)
A concept plan for the redevelopment of the Carrie Furnace site, spanning Swissvale and Rankin, in which the eastern end of the site (to the right) would be developed first. (Courtesy of Allegheny County Department of Development)
The nonprofit developer will pay for each parcel as it starts construction, so it is not “out of pocket” for land that isn’t yet going to generate revenue, said Chimka. The agreement doesn’t set hard deadlines for the purchase of the tracts. “Both organizations are motivated to get this moving,” said Chimka. He added that each time RIDC purchases a parcel, it is required by the agreement to start building something there within 10 months. Chimka said the first development would likely be a “flex-tech” building, with offices and large open spaces for industrial uses. The agreement with RIDC allows for flex-tech, research and development, biotech, film production, workforce training, life sciences, light manufacturing and assembly, offices and other “similar uses” on the site. Both RIDC and the county need to agree upon the emerging development plan, according to the agreement. Chimka said he’ll be consulting with the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County board and a multi-agency Carrie Furnace Steering Committee on the development plan. He said he hopes construction will start in the spring of 2022. The iconic blast furnace won’t be affected, other than potentially being enhanced as a tourist site, said Chimka. The nonprofit Rivers of Steel leads tours of the relic, at which scenes for numerous movies have been filmed. Chimka said that with better signage, lighting, restrooms, a gift shop and other amenities it could be a first-day destination. The neighboring communities, he said, want “job base expansion, tax base expansion and the preservation of some of the site for public access.” He added that RIDC “is going to be sensitive to work with tenants to maximize job opportunities within those communities.” It’s been more than 40 years since U.S. Steel operated the Carrie Furnace site, which it sold to a private developer who then sold it to the county. The county and federal government spent $35 million on infrastructure on the site. A Boston-based developer withdrew plans to build tech-flex space on the Carrie Furnace site early last year. The county announced its intention to sell the site to RIDC in August, but did not detail the arrangement at that time.
Sunrise over the Carrie Furnace site on Sept. 25, 2021, as seen from the south shore of the Monongahela River. (Photo by Rich Lord/PublicSource)
Sunrise over the Carrie Furnace site on Sept. 25, 2021, as seen from the south shore of the Monongahela River. (Photo by Rich Lord/PublicSource)

10/15/21: Hawkins Village, in Rankin, would go from 196 apartments to around 110

The Allegheny County Housing Authority plans to start demolishing the 80-year-old Hawkins Village apartment complex in January, agency Executive Director Frank Aggazio told PublicSource. The authority’s board, at its monthly meeting, voted to submit a slightly revised application to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which must approve the demolition. The agency’s initial application had failed to mention some meetings with residents that had happened in 2019.  Aggazio said he anticipated HUD approval “within days.” Hawkins Village, in Rankin, includes 196 apartments. Aggazio said in an email to PublicSource that all residents have been “relocated and adequately housed,” some in other public housing and others in private units that accept vouchers.  He said that after demolition of the entire complex, around 110 new apartments will be built in two phases with a total cost estimated at $37 million.

10/14/21: URA concludes that other public benefits counterbalance market rents on South Side

There won’t be affordable apartments in a seven-story building slated for the South Side Flats, but the Urban Redevelopment Authority agreed to sell the land sought by developer Somera Road in light of pledges of other public benefits. New York City-based Somera Road is involved in a multi-phase development on the South Side, and doesn’t want any public subsidy or tax break for a planned 246-unit apartment building two blocks west of the Hot Metal Bridge. The URA owns the land. Last month the URA board withheld its approval for a proposed transfer of the land, as members asked whether the developer could include units affordable to households of modest income. This month, URA staff told the board that the inclusion of affordable units would blow a hole in the developer’s $75.3 million financing plan. The financing is built on a large mortgage backed by rents of more than $1,000 for the apartments, most of which will be one-bedroom or studio units, with just 27 two-bedroom suites.
An artist's rendering of a proposed apartment building that developer SomeraRoad wants to build near the Three Rivers Heritage Trail at the Southside Works, submitted to the City Planning Commission for its meeting on June 15, 2021.
An artist’s rendering of a proposed apartment building that developer SomeraRoad wants to build near the Three Rivers Heritage Trail at the Southside Works, submitted to the City Planning Commission for its meeting on June 15, 2021.
Somera Road did, however, make several commitments:
  • Leasing 17 apartments in a nearby building to households with modest incomes
  • Involving minority-owned contractors in 25% of the work and women-owned contractors in 10%
  • Investing $4.7 million in public improvements including streetlights, an ice-skating rink, a playground and a town square
  • Reserving 5,000 square feet of retail space for local businesses that would pay rents of roughly half of the neighborhood’s market rates.
URA board Chairman Sam Williamson called that a “commendable outcome” given the absence of any public subsidy into the building. The board approved the sale without dissent.

10/14/21: URA gets ready to pay lawyers to fight evictions

The Urban Redevelopment Authority board voted to allocate $450,000 in affordable housing funds to a program that provides legal help to tenants facing eviction. The URA last year launched the Legal Assistance Program as part of the Housing Opportunity Fund. The HOF is backed by $10 million a year in City of Pittsburgh deed transfer tax revenue, and is meant to preserve and develop affordable housing. Last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to spur mass evictions, the URA allocated $250,000 to the Legal Assistance Program, and Pittsburgh City Council added another $550,000. As of last month, the URA had designated legal providers to defend tenants, but the money had not been spent. URA board member Lindsay Powell said that with local curbs on evictions expiring on Oct. 31, the need for the program will likely increase. “Come November, I am sure, unfortunately, we’re going to see a surge of eviction petitions filed,” Powell told the board at its monthly meeting. “Providing legal assistance is so critical and can be the difference between someone staying in their home and being put out into the street.” The allocation is part of the HOF’s 2022 budget, which now goes to council for final approval. The budget also includes:
  • $3.8 million to help finance development of new rental units, mostly reserved for households earning less than 30% of the area median income
  • $2,150,000 to assist homeowners with repairs
  • $950,000 to build or rehabilitate houses for sale to households at or below 80% of area median income
  • $700,000 to cover down payments and closing costs for first-time home buyers
  • $525,000 to assist renters facing short-term emergencies and at risk of losing their homes
  • $425,000 to help landlords with 10 units or fewer to make improvements so they can accept Housing Choice Voucher holders
  • $1 million to cover the URA’s costs to administer the programs.

10/12/21: Citizens Bank sent back to the drawing board on East Liberty branch plan

Citizens Bank won’t be permitted to demolish a half-century-old building in East Liberty in favor of a proposed smaller branch, following the City Planning Commission’s rejection of its plans. Citizens wants to raze an 11,000-square-foot building on Penn Avenue and Centre Avenue, constructed by Mellon Bank 52 years ago, and replace it with a 2,600-square-foot building, eight parking spaces and some landscaping. A bid by preservationists to have the existing structure declared historic failed to win City Council approval. Since the site is in a specially planned district, it’s up to the City Planning Commission to decide whether Citizens’ plan suits the neighborhood.
A rendering of a proposed new Citizens Bank branch, slated for East Liberty, presented to the City Planning Commission on Oct. 12, 2021.
A rendering of a proposed new Citizens Bank branch, slated for East Liberty, presented to the City Planning Commission on Oct. 12, 2021.
Architect Bruce Bisbano told the commission that the existing structure was too big, and that neither Citizens, nor the landlord that owns the site, have any appetite for redeveloping it as a multi-use building. Three commissioners, however, said the bank’s proposal was suburban in character, and out of step with the dense development that has transformed East Liberty in recent years. The architect’s renderings showed “a one-story bank building that could be anywhere in anywhere” from suburban Pittsburgh to rural Iowa, said Commissioner Sabina Deitrick. “In my opinion, this plan goes against many, many master plans that have been completed for the East Liberty development area,” added Commissioner Becky Mingo. Mingo and Deitrick were joined by Commissioner Holly Dick in voting no. Commissioners LaShawn Burton-Faulk and Dina Blackwell voted for the bank’s plan. Four commissioners were absent. “It is not approved,” Burton-Faulk told Bisbano. “I guess maybe you would need to reach out to [Department of City Planning] staff on next steps.”

10/12/21: Community concerns delay California-Kirkbride apartment bid

A developer will need to take another stab at winning community buy-in before the City Planning Commission votes on a request to change the zoning in part of California-Kirkbride. Affordable housing firm Northside Properties Residences wants to build a 25-unit apartment building on Brighton Road near Freedmore Street. The developer can’t build to that scale today, because the zoning allows only smaller-scale housing. So Northside Properties Residences wants to extend a nearby commercially zoned district to include 27 more lots, most of which are owned by the developer or the City of Pittsburgh.
A preliminary rendering of a proposed 24-to-26-unit apartment building planned for Brighton Road in California-Kirkbride as part of Northside Properties Residences' affordable housing development.
A preliminary rendering of a proposed 24-to-26-unit apartment building planned for Brighton Road in California-Kirkbride as part of Northside Properties Residences’ affordable housing development.
Two members of the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing, plus three other community members, told the commission that they opposed the change. “We want development in our community, we truly do,” said Debbie Reed, a California-Kirkbride advocate and member of the coalition. “But it should be what we ask for, and what we need, and not somebody just coming in and taking over our neighborhood.” Northside Properties Residences has been involved for several years in redevelopment of hundreds of rental units throughout California-Kirkbride, Central Northside and Perry South. Robert Mistick, a principal with Northside Properties Residences, said he had made attempts to meet with Reed and others in the coalition, but had been ignored. Commission members said they were concerned about the lack of community support, and also about the potential effect of larger-scale development on single-family homes along nearby Brighton Place. With the developer’s assent, the commission postponed consideration until Nov. 9. “I do want to ask that the community be responsive” to impending outreach by the developer, said Commissioner LaShawn Burton-Faulk. “It takes the community, and it takes the developer. So please make sure that you make yourselves available.”

10/11/21: Salem’s chosen from among four contestants for talks on former Shop ‘n Save site

Salem’s Market & Grill will get a shot at negotiating a lease for a key spot in the Hill District, Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration has announced. Salem’s won out over three competitors for first dibs on the former Shop ‘n Save site in the Centre Heldman Plaza, which is owned by the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority. The contestants made their pitches to the neighborhood in September, in a virtual meeting. In a subsequent online poll by the Hill Community Development Corp., Salem’s was the first choice of 47.5% of respondents, and the second choice of 28%.
Salem's Market and Grill, in the Strip District, will negotiate with the Urban Redevelopment Authority for a lease in the Hill District's Centre Heldman Plaza, where Shop 'n Save operated for six years (Screenshot)
Salem’s Market and Grill, in the Strip District, will negotiate with the Urban Redevelopment Authority for a lease in the Hill District’s Centre Heldman Plaza, where Shop ‘n Save operated for six years (Screenshot)
In a press release, the mayor’s office highlighted the vote, Salem’s plan to collaborate with the neighborhood and its status as a four-decade-old local and minority-owned business as factors in its selection. “Salem’s has a proven record for providing high quality food and products and supporting our minority communities,” Peduto said in the release. Shop ‘n Save operated in the 30,000-square-foot site from 2013 until it closed in 2019.

10/1/21: Elevator problems drove city’s condemnation notice for 24-story Stanwix Street tower

Update (10/4/21): The City of Pittsburgh has permitted tenants to reoccupy 625 Stanwix Street, and the building code violation has been marked as abated. The state Department of Labor and Industry has allowed the residential tower’s elevators to go back into service, according to city officials, addressing the issue that prompted the issuance of a notice to vacate. Update (10/2/21): An attorney for JoCo Sky told PublicSource that the company has arranged hotel stays for all residents of 625 Stanwix Street, and for their pets. The company is also providing 24-hour security to residents while they prepare to vacate, and is paying their travel costs. The company expects to repair the elevators this weekend, and then to request reinspection by the state. A major Downtown office-and-apartment tower that has been undergoing redevelopment has been condemned by the City of Pittsburgh after its elevators failed a state inspection. The 24-story 625 Stanwix Street currently includes both offices and some 80 residences, branded as The Venue Apartments and characterized online as “luxury apartments.” Residents are being relocated to hotels and are being given rent credits, according to Ken Scholtz, an attorney representing the owner, who responded to PublicSource’s questions.
The Venue Apartments are part of 625 Stanwix Street, Downtown. Owner JoCo Sky LP was served with a condemnation notice on October 1, 2021, after the building's elevators were sealed by the state. (Photo by Rich Lord/PublicSource)
The Venue Apartments are part of 625 Stanwix Street, Downtown. Owner JoCo Sky LP was served with a condemnation notice on October 1, 2021, after the building’s elevators were sealed by the state. (Photo by Rich Lord/PublicSource)
The building is owned by JoCo Sky LP, a firm based in Brookline, and managed by Nexus Real Estate. In January 2020, JoCo Sky and a contractor, Ava’s Handymen, got a building permit to renovate 48 apartments on the 11th and 12th floors. Those renovations appear to have led to the condemnation. “As contractors were completing apartment renovations on the 11th and 12th floor of the building, the final tests were being conducted on a new fire alarm panel,” Scholtz wrote. That’s when the elevator system shut down, apparently because of a problem with the recall system — the function used by firefighters to control elevators in emergencies. Scholtz wrote that JoCo Sky became aware of this issue on Wednesday, and has tried to have the elevators repaired. On Thursday, the state Department of Labor & Industry inspected and discovered that the elevators needed “a major repair,” according to a department spokeswoman. The department later sealed both of the building’s elevators, banning their use until they are repaired and pass inspection. The city followed up by serving a condemnation notice on JoCo Sky, giving them until early next week to vacate the building. In January, designers hired by JoCo Sky briefed the City Planning Commission on plans to replace four storefronts on the property with five apartments. That work hasn’t started yet, according to Scholtz. In July of this year, the city’s Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections opened an investigation of 625 Stanwix and found that required fire alarm, sprinkler and pump inspection reports were not available. As of last month, the city was still awaiting an update from building management, and issued a criminal complaint, according to records in the city’s public interface for code enforcement data information. Scholtz wrote that the city erroneously sent paperwork related to the fire system to the owner of a parking garage that is part of the building, and JoCo Sky didn’t get it until this week. He added that the fire sprinkler system works.

10/1/21: Landlords didn’t rush to court when eviction curbs ended

The first full month of unfettered evictions did not result in a surge in filings by local landlords hoping to oust tenants. Landlords in Allegheny County filed cases against 507 tenants in September. That’s down slightly from the August total, almost even with July, and less than half of the normal pre-pandemic tally.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s curbs on evictions, driven by fear that mass displacement would worsen the COVID-19 pandemic, were in place for nearly a year before they expired on Aug. 26. The CDC’s actions followed expirations of state and local rules that suppressed evictions for the first five-and-a-half months of the pandemic. Even without the CDC rules, though, Allegheny County courts are operating under an order issued by President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark on Aug. 6, which extends through Oct. 31. The order does not bar the filing of cases or ejection of tenants, but allows district judges to slow the process substantially if the tenant has applied for rental assistance. The county is operating a rent relief program meant to help tenants affected by the pandemic to stay in their rentals. – Nick Tommarello contributed.

September recap:

News from the City Planning Commission, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh and more

The history and possible futures of an American steel town

Where the sausage is made: A nine-member panel privately plots a course for the Hill

Electric buses are the future for Allegheny County. But progress depends on funds.

Expect the inspector: Unlike Pittsburgh, the state’s No. 3 city examines every rental home — eventually

Develop PGH archives

2020 Census: Pittsburgh’s slight decline came with ‘massive’ demographic shifts in 2010s

Hundreds of violations, few penalties: Allegheny County’s health enforcers frequently inspected — but rarely fined — two McKeesport properties

Facing roaches, rodents, leaks and balky heat and fire alarm systems, fed-up tenants of PNC Bank’s McKeesport complexes demand change

PNC Bank pledges to address ‘completely unacceptable’ conditions as officials demand changes at its McKeesport properties

August development coverage

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord. Develop PGH has been made possible with funding from The Heinz Endowments.

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Rich is a reporter and assistant editor at PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2005 through early 2020, leading projects on child poverty, the opioid...