Renters find 'Emerald' city in Pittsburgh's West End

| Saturday, June 5, 2010

Nestled in a valley of the Fairywood neighborhood in the city's West End, the Emerald Gardens townhome community boasts a 90 percent occupancy rate and a fresh new look.

That's a major improvement from its history under the name Westgate Village.

When Tryko Partners Inc. of New Jersey purchased the 436-unit complex in 2007, the buildings were empty and deteriorated from lack of maintenance. The property had gone into foreclosure in April 2006.

"We saw that complex as a great opportunity to turn the apartment around," said Yitzchok Rokowsky, chief executive of Tryko Partners. "We like the Pittsburgh market. It is a stable market, and this was a project that really was in trouble. You can't always turn a project around in other areas as we have done in Pittsburgh."

The timing of the property coming on the market coincided with Tryko's plan to expand its niche failing properties, said Hirsch Chinn, the firm's local manager.

"Westgate presented us with the challenge and the freedom to create a brand-new market in an area that was waiting for an infusion of life," Chinn said.

"The challenge was to overcome the existing stigma associated with Westgate Village. On the other hand, once we overcame that obstacle, we were able to attract an excellent tenant base that continues to enjoy their lifestyle here at Emerald Gardens."

Rob Stephany, executive director of the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority, said he initially wasn't confident that Tryko could accomplish the job of restoring the apartments and attracting young and professional tenants to a site that had a negative reputation.

"But when I toured the complex recently, I found few vacancy signs — most were in units recently renovated — and found the owner had done a good job managing the apartments," he said.

Stephany said Emerald Gardens now has the ability to attract tenants who may have gone to a suburban apartment complex instead of remaining in the city.

Shane and Valerie Logan are among those young couples who have leased an apartment. They have been tenants at Emerald Gardens for just over a month — and love their two-bedroom unit and the complex.

"We moved to Pittsburgh from Washington, Pa., to be closer to the city. And once we saw Emerald Gardens, that was our choice," Shane said.

The Logans selected their residence after viewing about four or five other apartments, he said. The monthly rent is $735, plus electricity and heat.

Councilwoman Theresa Smith, who represents the district, remembers when Westgate was crime-ridden with drugs and other illegal activities. Police constantly were called to the apartments until the tenant base eroded and the complex fell into disrepair and became vacant.

"This was not an environment for people to be comfortable," she said.

Because of the success of Emerald Gardens, new development may occur in the area.

"The apartment owner (Tryko) has indicated to us that it would be willing to purchase vacant houses along Fairywood Street — there are at least 19 — and renovate them either for sale or for rent," said Smith, adding that Tryko is considering to build more apartments there.

Tryko began renovations shortly after it took over ownership of the buildings in 2007. Wrightwood Capital Inc., a Chicago investment company, provided the financing.

"The scope of the renovations consisted of a complete tear out of the interiors of the townhomes," Chinn said

All the townhomes received granite counter tops and stainless-steel appliances in the kitchen; porcelain and ceramic tile in the kitchens and bathrooms; all new tubs, toilets and vanities; and new carpeting throughout, he said.

The exterior upgrades included new roofs, siding and windows as well as a complete landscaping package.

New amenities include a fitness center, and a fenced-in dog run area. A volleyball court is expected to be opened this summer, he said.

Over the past month, Emerald Gardens secured permanent financing of about $20 million to pay off the Wrightwood loan, said Chinn.

Tryko also purchased the land beneath the 5.8-acre site on Windgap Avenue from the URA for $610,000.

Emerald Gardens continues as an affordable housing option, with market-rate rentals, Chinn said. No longer are the units subsidized.

One-bedroom units rent from $595 to $610; two-bedrooms, $745 to $795; and three-bedrooms, from $895 to $945, all plus electricity and heat.

Westgate Village was started in 1969 by developer Melvin Pugalch, who received two mortgages from the Department of Housing and Urban Development — $3.3 million initially, and $4.24 million later — and the development included subsidized rents provided by HUD.

The developer defaulted on the mortgages in January 2001. Remaining tenants were relocated to other housing complexes, starting in August 2001, according to records at HUD's Pittsburgh office.

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