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Restoring Schenley High School will be tricky process

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Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Transforming the former Schenley High School building into apartments — as two of the four bidders seeking to buy the historic Oakland building have proposed — will require a firm grasp of the ABCs of historic preservation to make it pay off, say local developers who have undertaken such projects.

The highest bid — $5.2 million — was submitted by PMC Property Group of Philadelphia, which owns apartment buildings in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and six other states.

Developers say a solid market exists for restored historic buildings, but getting a structure built 100 or more years ago to meet the expectations of today's renters and buyers can be fraught with pitfalls.

“You don't want to be too far into a project and find out the things you want to do won't work because they don't meet historic preservation standards,” said Jonathan Hill, who with business partner Casey Steiner turned the former Fifth Avenue High School in the Hill District into 65 upscale apartments.

“Even if you know the preservation guidelines, you can easily blow a budget if you don't know where to find the right materials or people who know how to do the work properly,” Hill said.

The Fifth Avenue building was a school from 1894 to 1976. It was converted for use as commercial space during the 1980s but continued to deteriorate before Hill and Steiner did a top-to-bottom restoration last year.

Work done on the exterior of Pittsburgh buildings designated as historic landmarks, such as Fifth Avenue and Schenley high schools, must be approved by the city's Historic Review Commission. Specific guidelines also must be followed for a building to be eligible for federal historic preservation tax credits.

Even when an old school building is not considered a historic landmark, such as the former South Hills High School in Mt. Washington, restoring a large, old structure can be daunting.

“It's critical to have a contractor who really knows how to deal with an older building,” said Victor Rodriguez, whose company, a.m. Rodriguez, turned South Hills High School into 106 units of housing for senior citizens.

“We hired Sota Construction because of their extensive experience with older buildings, and as a result we had very few change orders,” he said. “That can have a huge impact on keeping the cost of a project within budget.”

While the South Hills High School building, which was built in 1917, was not eligible for federal historic preservation tax credits, Rodriguez felt it was important to preserve the building's character.

“One of the things that make many older buildings attractive is their distinctive architectural features,” he said. “So when we had to rebuild brick walls or put a new front on the building, we were respectful of what was originally done and tried to blend the new with the old.”

Rodriguez is in the process of buying the former Prospect Middle School in Mt. Washington for conversion into 67 apartments. That project will adhere to federal historic preservation guidelines to be eligible for tax credits, he said.

Hill said there can be a great deal of satisfaction in restoring old buildings such as schools because so many people have an emotional attachment to them.

“These buildings are often part of the fabric of a neighborhood and are part of people's memories,” he said. “It's great to have a hand in saving a building so it can be appreciated by people in the future.”

Pittsburgh Public Schools officials will review the bids for the Schenley building and make a recommendation to Superintendent Linda Lane. The school board is scheduled to vote on Feb. 27.

Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or

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