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Vanaski: Hopefully, land bank will be good neighbor to Homewood

| Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 11:09 p.m.

Free, off-street parking is in abundance these days in Homewood's commercial district. That's what happens when you have a series of shuttered businesses at what should be a busy intersection at Homewood and Frankstown avenues.

Parking in a lot that used to belong to a fast-food restaurant there, I met last week with Phillip Martin, who has lived in Homewood off and on for most of his 58 years. He called me after reading my recent column about the land bank legislation passed by Pittsburgh City Council.

Under the new law, the land bank board can acquire land and blighted homes and buildings, clear liens and other debts attached to them and make these properties available for sale to developers or investors.

Martin drives a Ford Taurus with two bullet holes around the rear bumper area from a shooting on his street. Once, a bullet came through his window and into the chair where his wife normally sits to meditate.

Yet Martin doesn't plan to leave: “When the bad guys move in, why do we have to move out?”

He'd rather stay and see some investment in his neighborhood.

“What is wrong with bringing some businesses to this depressed community?” he asks.

Especially as far as this intersection is concerned. Among the empty buildings is a Family Dollar that never opened.

Family Dollar spokeswoman Bryn Winburn, confirmed the company is no longer interested in that location.

“So that's development in Homewood,” Martin said. “They built us an empty building.”

The Homewood Renaissance Association took over the building last year and plans to use it to house a ministry. Also present at this corner is a sign on an overgrown lot that states: “Property of Homewood Art Museum.” Martin estimates the sign's been there for about 15 years. He's close – the property was purchased in 1997.

Councilman Ricky Burgess, who represents Homewood, said the owner tried for decades to get the project off the ground, but it never happened. He said he initially opposed land banking because he wants to see development of homes and businesses that will remain affordable to middle-class residents. Burgess said the final bill addressed his concerns.

SouthSide Works, for example, is “upscale, for high-income residents,” Burgess said. “I wanted to see something more conducive for moderate-income people to live, shop and work.”

It's going to take a long time to see any change in Homewood, Burgess said. That's because Homewood is big, and the effort will require a lot of money.

Burgess has called for a $500 million investment in developing the neighborhood, starting with an immediate $150 million infusion from the city.

The last time that kind of money went into remaking a part of the city, it started the SouthSide Works.

Nafari Vanaski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8669, nvanaski@tribweb.com or on Twitter @NafariTrib.

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