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Pittsburgh neighborhoods put on a new face with help from URA grants

| Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, 11:36 p.m.
The renovated facade at 431-433 East Ohio Street in the North Side Wednesday February 6, 2013. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
The renovated facade at 431-433 East Ohio Street in the North Side Wednesday February 6, 2013. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

An ugly line of roofing tar stained the bricks above drooping wooden decks on seven Black Street row houses. Cracked paint, rotting staircases and battered front doors greeted visitors.

The appearance sent a clear message: No one cares about this street.

Pat Buddemeyer says a few thousand dollars worth of paint, decking and landscaping changed that last year. Her newly adopted East Liberty street is a safer, friendlier place to live and walk, a few steps from Obama Academy of International Studies and busy East Liberty Boulevard.

“I've gotta believe everybody likes what it looks like now a whole lot better when they drive by or walk by. It doesn't look so derelict,” said Buddemeyer, who is part of a co-housing community on the block that shares tools and supplies and works on a community garden. “I feel much better showing people our places with that front cleaned up. It looked bad, and it was discouraging to people.

“We care about this place. We're going to take care of it. It makes a statement that this is our community, and we're going to look out for it.”

Some of the money for repairs came from facade renovation programs operated by Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority to erase vacant and dilapidated homes and storefronts in some of the city's grittiest neighborhoods. The authority distributed 54 grants and loans valued at $525,438 in 2012, the most in more than a decade, said spokeswoman Gigi Saladna.

“When you have active, engaged neighbors, like this, they're like oil and water to criminal activity,” said Kendall Pelling, project manager at East Liberty Development Inc. The nonprofit purchased and later sold most of the homes on Black Street and worked with homeowners to obtain money.

“That little extra grant money helped stabilize what was a really tricky and challenging place,” he said.

For every $1 the city put toward such facade renovations, it paired with $4 in private investment for a total of $2.17 million from business, according to a URA report that details renovations to restaurants, bars, beauty salons and homes in city neighborhoods including Beechview, Bloomfield, East Liberty, Greenfield, Lawrenceville and the North Side.

“The city's facade renovation programs provide the financial boost that many local property owners need to take on the improvement projects that help make their businesses more eye-catching and welcoming to potential patrons,” Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said.

Many times grants make it possible for a homeowner or development group to afford a renovation project — though not always.

“It was a nice bonus for us,” said Al DePasquale, co-owner of October Development. “But it's something we were going to do anyway.”

The firm renovated a row house on James Street next to DePasquale's office. It received a $5,000 grant to pair with $19,100 the company invested. DePasquale said the nonprofit North Side Leadership Conference urged him to seek the grant because few homeowners apply and money that isn't used in a given budget year disappears, he said.

No one lives in the home, which the firm purchased in 2010 for $3,300, according to county assessment records.

“It wasn't being used, so we used it,” he said.

In the core of East Liberty, two street-face loans totaling $105,000 for facade improvements went to Highland Wallace LP, a joint partnership of Shadyside developer Walnut Capital and commercial real estate firm Massaro Properties. They are converting the historic 13-story Highland Building and three-story Wallace Building into 129-unit apartment buildings on South Highland Avenue.

A $4.5 million state grant last year and the URA's agreement to sell the building for $1.87 million made the $30 million project possible.

Along East Ohio Street in the North Side, $23,500 in facade renovation loans managed by North Side Leadership Conference are helping turn a dilapidated former flower shop into an attractive storefront next to the gift and candy shop operated by Barbara Burns, a former City Council member.

“They seem small, but these grant programs make it possible to bring these old buildings into today,” Burns said. “A person with a reasonable budget and contingency would be hard-pressed to do it financially.”

Burns said the money paid for renovations to wood trim, windows and doors of the empty storefront. Remodeling reduces the perceived risk in opening for business on a street with a mix of high- and low-quality retailers, Burns said. She hopes to attract a tenant.

“The street has not moved forward as quickly as people would like to see it, but we have made strides,” she said.

Jeremy Boren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7935 or

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