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South Hills 'transit-oriented development' could be first of many

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Monday, Nov. 15, 2010

When James Aiello Sr. first pitched his idea for building apartments and shops atop the Port Authority's Castle Shannon light rail park-and-ride, the dot-com boom was in full swing, and the real-estate bust was nearly a decade away.

Now, he's waiting to see whether a government-backed loan through the Department of Housing and Urban Development could provide the last piece of capital he needs for the Castle Shannon Transit Village to become the first of many "transit-oriented developments" planned for the South Hills to break ground.

"I still feel optimistic," said Aiello, co-founder and principal at Lawrenceville-based JRA Development Group Inc. "But basically the lending has been shut down in this country. The only money is from government programs like HUD, and there's a long line."

To meet HUD requirements, JRA is undertaking its latest feasibility study for the $32 million to $35 million project -- its fourth or fifth, Aiello said. This one will look at possible rents for the planned 128 apartments and 14,000 square feet of retail, and how large a loan the rents could justify. The project would include a deck above the park-and-ride lot to add more parking and bring the building's front door level with Castle Shannon Boulevard.

Aiello and others have touted the project as a good example of transit-oriented development, the idea being that building near public transportation encourages more people to use it, and that the availability of public transportation makes the development more attractive to residents, workers and shoppers.

"You could feasibly live there and never have to own or use a car," he said.

"If it's done, it'll spur a lot of development along other park-and-rides, create more of the transit-oriented development that everyone's been talking about," Castle Shannon Mayor Don Baumgarten said. "If this one would fly, I'm sure it would open a lot of doors."

In the time it has taken to plan and finance the project in Castle Shannon, other neighborhoods in the South Hills have looked to take advantage of the light-rail lines as a catalyst for development.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority and Philadelphia-based consultants Interface Design Studio sponsored a pair of meetings last month to gather public comments on development opportunities surrounding the South Hills Junction station and the Broadway Avenue corridor, where the light-rail tracks run down the center of the street.

"There was definitely a sense of optimism amongst the steering committee," said Greg Panza, a program manager with the Mt. Washington Community Development Corporation. Participants in the meeting at the Warrington Recreation Center put dots on maps to identify their homes, favorite places and opportunities for improvement, while meetings will use Monopoly money to gauge where people would like to see funding, he said.

One obstacle people identified at South Hills Junction, where Port Authority's Brown Line through Allentown ends and its Red and Blue lines split, is the feeling that the station is isolated and poorly lit, Panza said.

The station could benefit from better connections to the neighborhoods of Mt. Washington, Belzhoover and Allentown surrounding it, he said, and a nearby Port Authority storage yard could be redeveloped with housing, shopping or retail to attract more people.

"All this talk about what's happening in the city with parking and the possibility of the rates increasing makes it even more important to consider public transit," Panza said. "Once the (North Shore Connector) opens and people have access to everything on the North Shore ... people might be more willing to consider living in Allentown, Belzhoover, Beechview or Mt. Washington."

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