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Alliance aims to transform vacant parcel in St. Clair to include townhouses, urban farming

| Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014, 10:10 p.m.

The site of a former public housing complex in St. Clair might become the home of a residential community that could fund one of the largest urban farms in the country, nonprofit officials said.

“It's definitely a significant plan, but it's not going to be easy,” said Aaron Sukenik, executive director of the Hilltop Alliance, which wants to redevelop the site and operate the farm.

The Housing Authority of the city of Pittsburgh demolished the 61-year-old St. Clair Village public housing complex in 2010 as it sought to reshape the look of public housing in the city to a model that had less-dense communities and more mixed incomes.

The Hilltop Alliance wants to turn the vacant, 107-acre parcel into Hilltop Village Farm, which would include 120 for-sale and rental townhouses, as well as an urban farm using about 20 acres for a farm incubator, youth farm and community-supported agriculture farm, or CSA.

The Allegheny Land Trust wants to buy the land from the housing authority, and lease some of it for farming and protect about 60 acres of steep hillside.

“We want to be a good partner with the local community, and we'd like to do another urban project like this, so (Hilltop Village Farm) is of high interest to us in that regard. It also has an urban agriculture component, which is of interest to us,” said Christopher Beichner, executive director of the trust.

The housing authority will open the site for bids in three or four months, Sukenik said. The authority could not comment on its plans.

The alliance's goal is for the farm operations to become self-sustaining in a few years because the revenue from the townhouse rentals and homeowners' association fees and development partnership equity would support them, Sukenik said.

Other partners in the Hilltop project include Green Development LLC, which is slated to build the for-sale housing and owned by Ernie Sota of Sota Construction Services, and Lighthouse Cathedral, which would operate the youth farm program. The alliance and Green would partner on the rental housing development.

Projects such as the planned Hilltop Village Farm are called conservation communities — residential communities with large tracts of land that have conservation value.

One example is the Prairie Crossing community outside Chicago, which promotes preservation of open space. Hilltop Village Farm would differ in that it would be the highest-density version in the country and offer the most affordable housing, although it would not be low-income housing, Sukenik said. The two- and three-bedroom townhomes' prices would range from $200,000 to $250,000 and the rents would range from $1,100 to $1,400, according to an alliance report.

Rejecting decline

The St. Clair neighborhood has been plagued by high vacancy rates and low property values for years.

Its residential vacancy rate is about 30 percent, said Christopher Briem, a regional economist with the University of Pittsburgh's University Center for Social and Urban Research. St. Clair's median residential property value declined 27.9 percent to $41,100 between 2000 and 2010, according to city data. Allegheny County's median property value was $121,200 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

One St. Clair resident views the possible redevelopment of the public housing site as a positive step.

“It was a wonderful neighborhood to grow up in. We don't have to accept the decline as inevitable,” said St. Clair homeowner John Niederberger, 60, who lives across the street from the Mt. Oliver border and is a member of the Mt. Oliver Block Watch.

Sukenik estimates the redevelopment would cost $28 million, not including purchase of the land. The project would be funded by loans and grants.

The Mt. Oliver/St. Clair area is a low-income area that lacks access to a full-service grocery store, according to a 2013 report by Just Harvest, a South Side-based nonprofit that advocates against poverty and hunger.

That is one of the reasons the alliance plans for Hilltop Village Farm to include a CSA farm, in which residents would pay $500 to $600 a year through homeowners' fees and rents in exchange for fresh produce every two weeks. Neighborhood residents outside the development could participate in the program, Sukenik said.

If the Hilltop conservation community were to be built as planned, its urban farm would be one of the largest in the country, said Julie Butcher Pezzino, executive director of nonprofit Grow Pittsburgh, which was a consultant on the farm plan.

Urban farms are a fast-growing trend nationwide for several reasons, she said.

“Being able to grow food close to home, either knowing who grows your food or you actually grow that food yourself, is seen as a benefit to a lot of people,” said Pezzino, who said communities are seeking innovative ways to reuse blighted property.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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