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Planners see progress on transforming the city's North Side

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Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010

A row of boarded-up buildings with faded rainbow facades in the heart of the North Side is expected to be unrecognizable as soon as this time next year.

"People aren't going to know where they are," said Kirk Burkley, president of North Side Tomorrow, a joint venture of the Central Northside Neighborhood Council and the Northside Leadership Conference that is heading the Federal Street-North Avenue redevelopment project.

Last week's grand opening of a Crazy Mocha coffee shop at Federal and North is the beginning of things to come, said Burkley, who also is the Pittsburgh Planning Commission secretary.

Developer Jim Aiello Jr. said he plans to hire Scott-based TEDCO Construction next week as contractor for a nearly $5 million renovation project across Federal from Crazy Mocha that would bring a Fifth Third Bank branch, about 15 apartments and possibly two retail spaces. At least one of the spaces could be a restaurant, he said.

"The community would like a restaurant, and I would like to make the community happy," Aiello said.

Redevelopment can't happen soon enough, said Anthony Johnson, 35, who lived in the North Side before moving to Bloomfield. He still works in the neighborhood, serving as a medical courier for Allegheny General Hospital.

"Any type of improvement to get rid of some of the blight would be nice," Johnson said. "Unfortunately, some people need to see something nice to think it is."

Proposals soon will be solicited for the remaining buildings on the block, including the old Garden Theater, Bradberry Theater and the Masonic Hall, Burkley said.

Burkley has met with at least three developers and was scheduled to meet with another earlier this week.

"I am very confident by the end of this year we will at least know who is doing what and have a developer for every building," said Burkley, 32, a Downtown lawyer who lives in the Mexican War Streets.

As for what eventually will occupy the revamped buildings, that remains to be seen.

"We are open to anything," Burkley said. "Our preference would be for uses that fit within our community plans."

The wish list includes a residential-retail mix, with shops and restaurants on the first floor and apartments and condominiums above, and reusing the Garden Theater.

Hope remains that the Garden can be redeveloped into a movie house, brew-pub complex similar to the historic Bagdad Theater & Pub in Portland, Ore., although Burkley admitted that might be a stretch. The Penn Brewery considered the property before renewing its lease at the North Side property it has called home since 1986, Burkley said.

But the opening of Crazy Mocha — in a renovated building with arched windows and exposed brick walls — is a sign things are moving in the right direction, Burkley said.

"That shows what the entire block can look like," Burkley said.

Ken Zeff, owner of the Shadyside-based coffee chain, said he often looks for opportunities to open shops in neighborhoods on the rebound. Such was the case when Crazy Mocha moved into Lawrenceville in 2005.

"We do look for areas that sort of need a coffee house for a tipping point to maybe get a restaurant or something else," Zeff said. "It will be nice to get some things with the lights on. There's a lot of vacant buildings right now."

Additional Information:

Holding out hope

Community planners would like to see the Garden Theater in the North Side be reused the way the Bagdad Theater & Pub has been in Portland, Ore. See the Bagdad Theater here and search under 'pubs.'

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