Work progresses at former McKeesport YMCA

| Wednesday, March 6, 2013, 4:26 a.m.

With the renovation of its McKeesport Downtown Housing facility, Action Housing Inc. may be creating the largest passive house in the United States.

Since being awarded $968,221 in tax credits through the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency last April and a $10.1 million tax credit investment by PNC later in 2012, Action Housing is in the process of improving its 84 residential units in the former YMCA facility at 513 Sinclair St.

The 64,974-square-foot building includes 45 rental rooms, 14 transitional Bridge Housing units and 25 shelter rooms. In addition to larger rooms with more privacy, Action Housing is improving the facility's ecological footprint by increasing energy efficiency through foam insulation, specialized windows and a geothermal heating and cooling system.

“We've been told this will be the first multi-family passive house of its size in the country,” said James DeGrazia, a special projects consultant with Action Housing. “The tightness of this building will make it very efficient to operate and that's the key to making it work.”

With designs by the Thoughtful Balance architectural firm, Action Housing hopes to cut its utility bills in half through improved efficiency.

REPAL construction began demolition and asbestos abatement in November 2012. Construction of new units is under way, with an expected completion date set for December.

From Sixth Avenue, passersby can see crews digging wells for the geothermal system. From Fifth Avenue and Sinclair Street, crews are seen only when loading and unloading materials.

“There's not much going on outside the building,” McKeesport Downtown Housing property manager Anne Messner said. “Most of the stuff is going on inside.”

Messner said it's a complicated process to take on such a massive construction project in an occupied building, but crews couldn't displace the residents.

In May, residents will move from their current units to the new section before the job moves into its second phase.

The Bridge Housing rooms will be equipped with kitchens and bathrooms. The others will share bathrooms and have microwaves in the rooms. There will be a common lounge, kitchen and other rooms.

With the YMCA building serving as housing since its inception in 1922, it has been a community resource for individuals who need low-income or transitional housing opportunities. The shelter and Bridge Housing programs moved there in the 1980s.

Before the YMCA left its Sinclair Street facility in 2010, Allegheny County Department of Human Services approached Action Housing about managing the units already on site to maintain fair housing opportunities in the downtown area.

DeGrazia said Action Housing tries to lead residents to programs that can help them set attainable goals.“We've had people go from shelter to Bridge and then become residents,” DeGrazia said. “Some will become employees and work here. Others will move on from that and get a better job. We've had successes with motivated people.”

Devon Hester, 38, successfully completed the Bridge Housing program and now is employed with McKeesport Downtown Housing.

“It was a blessing for me,” Hester said. “You have to utilize the services for your benefit. If you don't go through the programs and learn something, you will see yourself in the same situation that got you there.”

Nicholas Reese, 18, who is living in the shelter at McKeesport Downtown Housing, said he thinks building improvements will allow Action Housing to help more people improve their lives in a comfortable setting. He hopes to stay in the shelter while finding education opportunities through Job Corps.

“It's helping me get up on my feet,” he said. “Everyone in here is really kind. This is the closest I've felt to feeling like I've had a family in a long time.”

Messner said the role of property manager at McKeesport Downtown Housing is more than the traditional meaning of that title.

Like a den mother, she makes sure residents have access to community food pantries, job training programs and health care resources.

“The plan is in the works to have many social services here so that we don't have to send people out,” Messner said, noting talks are beginning now but offices wouldn't open until construction is complete.

“We're trying to drive more consistent services here for our residents to have immediate access,” DeGrazia said.

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or

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