Interest is strong in unusual condos on Neff Street
By Bob Karlovits
Published: Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, 9:02 p.m.
Sitting on a cliff on the edge of Mt. Washington, the five-story condo building is a lean collection of stone, steel and glass that stands in stark contrast to the more humble homes around it.
“I wanted to build something that was far different from the Mt. Washington that used to be,” says architect Justin Cipriani, who lives in one of the three condos in the building. “But there were times I would wake up in the middle of the night and think. ‘Oh, man, is this a mistake?' ”
The condos on Neff Street, overlooking the city and feet from the green hillside of Emerald Park, are far from a mistake, say real estate and community representatives working with Cipriani.
Brian Sergi-Curfman, an associate broker for Howard Hanna Real Estate, says the two condos for sale are “very easy to show. There is great interest” in the building.
The bottom two-floor, four-bedroom unit is on the market for $750,000, Cipriani says. The two-floor, three-bedroom penthouse is $850,000.
The condo building was finished in July and had its first brokers' tour in August, and Cipriani is looking to do more. He is planning to build 15 single-family houses that have the same modern look at another park-side area nearby.
“This is the Macbook Pro, the others will be iPads,” he says.
Jason Kambitsis, director of economic development for the Mt. Washington Community Development Corp., calls Cipriani “an asset to the community. He lives there, and he has opened his door to the community.”
Jonathan Lusin, board president of that group, says he is enthusiastic about how the look and feel of the neighborhood could be changed by “the vision in Cipriani's work.”
That vision emerged when Cipriani decided to bring his skills home from the West Coast.
Cipriani, 34, says he was “a kid who liked to make stuff.”
His father, Gerard, is an attorney who has been involved in real estate for decades, so Justin's interest in “making stuff” started him drifting toward architecture when he was young,
When he was in high school, he had an internship in the firm of Pittsburgh architect Louis Astorino in 1995, working mostly with Dennis Astorino, now the owner of DLA+ Architecture & Interior Design.
“He was a kid with promise,” Dennis says. “He was a bright kid.”
That promise led Cipriani to Cornell University, where he studied architecture and design in a program that he says was so demanding it was like “Olympic training.” He says the intellectual aim of that school led him to the modern design that shows in the current project and in the 15-unit plan.
At this point, he says, he could not even design a Craftsman or Arts & Crafts home.
“It's a whole different way of thinking, a whole different way of handling material,” he says.
In 2001, Cipriani moved to the San Francisco area, where he began designing homes for Toby Long Design, then a part of a larger firm, Clever Homes.
But when the real estate market began to crumble around 2007, Cipriani started thinking it might be time to come home.
The search for a place to live led him in 2009 to the site on Neff Street. It was where a home had burned down around 1968, he says, and had been sitting vacant.
“As soon as I saw it, I could see the possibilities,” he says.
But those possibilities also had challenges, he says. With the site on the edge of a cliff, a secure design is a must, so the $1.5 million construction project led to the installation of 35 steel caissons about 30 inches in diameter that got down to the bedrock. The technique keeps the building mounted to the core of the hillside if — or when — dirt shifts
The project had other challenges, too.
Cipriani admits he was something of an unknown element when he came into this market and decided to build a dramatic, challenging project on a cliffside.
With the help of his father, he was led to some financing sources. His three brothers helped in real estate, marketing and online services.
But before the project began, he had to deal with the entitlement process of getting permission to build on the hillside and convincing neighbors the project was not a threat. It was a nightmare, he admits, and it took the guidance of his father and other experienced souls to lead him through.
The community development group's Lusin says “change is always scary” to “entrenched communities” such as Mt. Washington.
Kambitsis was with the city planning department at that time and says he was impressed with the way Cipriani opened up to discuss plans with the neighbors.
As he got through the entitlement and construction process, Cipriani began to look into the future. He found a piece of land nearby that he thought could be the home for a cluster of similar, modern-style homes. That led to his plans for Bailey Park, named that way because it is on Bailey Avenue and with a nod to “It's a Wonderful Life.”
He has begun the entitlement process on that idea and hopes to begin work in spring.
Cipriani also has seen the need to become a developer, not just an architect. To keep the price for Bailey Park homes in the $300,000 range, he says, he needed to find a way to handle the construction job in a reasonable way.
He would not be able to keep the price down dealing with construction on his own, he says. At the same time, he adds, the area's major home builders would not be interested in working out of their realm of design.
He came to an agreement with Deklewa Home, where they would be the builders of homes he designed and marketed through his Cipriani Studios.
“We think he is very smart, bringing a West Coast look to Pittsburgh,” says John R. Deklewa, president of the Bridgeville firm.
Deklewa says he believes his firm can bring “that high-end look at a price somewhere in the middle.”
Lusin from the community group says he is excited about the style of Cipriani's homes.
“This is a breath of fresh air for Mt. Washington,” he says.
Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7852.
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