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Architect envisions Liberty lofts

| Saturday, Oct. 27, 2001

Liberty Avenue's grimy grinning guy is finally going away.

I refer to the dusty, smiling face on the sign above the old China Chef restaurant at 905 Liberty Avenue. Anyone regularly traveling this busy Downtown thoroughfare probably has noticed the cheerful chef grinning down at them in perpetually happy fashion.

Considering his buffet went out of business roughly a decade ago, our Chinese chef sure is one happy fella. He seemingly has not a care in the world. But Eve Picker is about to knock that smile right off his face and knock the rest of that ugly sign right off the rundown building.

Picker, 46, of Friendship, is the loft lady of Pittsburgh. Over the past four years, the local architect and developer has made the risky proposition of Downtown loft dwellings succeed in two locations. She's about to try again at the erstwhile China Chef.

Partnering with a nonprofit arm of the city Urban Redevelopment Authority, Picker's No Wall Productions will transform the five-story building into the $2.2 million Liberty Lofts.

By summer, the space should house a retailer on the ground floor, eight one-bedroom lofts on the upper ones whose monthly rental rates will range from $1,200 to $1,700.

Standing in the dark, dank remnants of the restaurant Thursday, I saw a faded sign advertising a long-ago daily special for $3.40 and smelled mildew. Picker saw potential and smelled future success.

"We already have a waiting list of people interested in living here," she said. "This project may look a little small, but to me it signifies big things."

Big things such as the ongoing revitalization of this particular portion of the Cultural District, of which Picker is playing a substantial role after debuting First Avenue's Firstside Lofts in 1997.

Two years ago, she renovated the old Bruno Building at 945 Liberty into retail and residential loft space. Next to the Bruno, the curtain is rising on another Picker production: a new, narrow three-story building opening next summer and following the same retail-loft formula.

Combined with the recently proposed $27 million African American Cultural Center near William Penn Place, Liberty Avenue's future suddenly appears brighter than it has in years. But long mocking efforts to upgrade the street is a certain chef grinning blithely over his shabby little structure.

"This place is one of the first things you see walking down from the convention center or the (Westin Convention Center) hotel," Picker said. "It's really been a blight on Liberty Avenue."

Still will be for a while. The work this place needs transcends merely taking down the old restaurant's tacky tapestries.

"We're starting out with just a shell of a building - no plumbing, no wiring," Picker said. "The upper floors are just a big, open empty warehouse space. I don't think they've been used since the 1940s or '50s, but we want to get people in them next year."

Picker has some lofty goals for Liberty Avenue. Should they be successfully realized, enough people interested in stretching Downtown's horizons will be sporting satisfied grins to more than make up for the loss of one gleeful Chinese chef.

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