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Revitalization of Pittsburgh's North Side stirs debate

Bob Bauder
| Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, 4:42 p.m.
The front of 624-626 East Ohio Street in Pittsburgh's North Side on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018.
Bob Bauder | Tribune-Review
The front of 624-626 East Ohio Street in Pittsburgh's North Side on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018.

Nobody wanted to invest 10 years ago in new businesses along Pittsburgh's East Ohio Street when it was a haven for crime and nuisance bars.

Now that community groups have cleaned up the three-block commercial corridor, developers are arguing over the best ways to market buildings.

A debate is centering on plans to demolish one of Pittsburgh's oldest buildings in the 600 block of East Ohio.

Community groups say they need to raze the building dating to the 1830s and another one next door to improve and market three other historic buildings dubbed the “Three Sisters.”

“One elevator would give you access to the upper floors of the historic buildings,” said Mark Fatla, executive director of the North Side Leadership Conference. “If I don't demo the structure, they don't get an elevator tower. If I don't get an elevator tower, there's no way to make economic use of the second and third floors of the Three Sisters buildings.”

Nick Kyriazi, a neighborhood preservationist, said the vacant two-story building at 624-626 East Ohio is the last commercial structure left from the North Side's fledgling days as canal port. The building has housed dozens of businesses — everything from a hat shop to a saloon and an undertaker's parlor — over the past century.

Kyriazi, 64, of East Allegheny, and two others in late December nominated the building to be designated as a historic landmark. The move put plans by the building's owner, the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority, on hold because city code prohibits demolishing buildings nominated for historic status.

Kyriazi, a retired biomedical engineer and former president of the East Allegheny Community Council, said he supported the demolition plans a decade ago when private developers avoided East Allegheny, also known as Deutschtown.

He said things have since changed.

North Side-based October Development is planning a hotel and apartment building and renovations to an existing former bank building on East Ohio. A consortium of companies including October Development is leasing eight buildings with an option to buy after five years with plans to renovate them for restaurants and shops.

Kyriazi said it makes no sense to raze 624-626 because October Development is willing to buy and preserve it.

“The whole point is you have a private developer who's willing to do it without subsidy,” Kyriazi said. “I say government should not be involved if the private market is willing to do it and save the building.”

Last year, the URA issued a request for proposals from developers and North Side-based Go Realty was the only company that replied. Go Realty declined to comment. Fatla said Go Realty has agreed to the plans, but has not started construction.

Al DePasquale, a partner in October Development, said he would purchase the building from the URA and rehabilitate it if Go Realty's plans fall through. He said he owns property behind the Three Sisters that would provide rear access and allow him to renovate the upper floors for apartments. Storefronts would be on the first floor, he said.

“If they can't pull that off, I can save the building,” DePasquale said.

Kyriazi said the building at 624-626 could be the North Side's oldest based on the research of well-known architectural historian Carol Peterson, who died late last year. Peterson could not pinpoint the exact construction date, but wrote in a 2012 report that it likely dates to Pittsburgh's Canal Era, which began about 1830.

Barbara Burns, a former city councilwoman and president of the Historic Deutschtown Development Corp., said she would not consider changing demolition plans unless Go Realty dumps the project.

Burns noted the company has yet to start construction and said neighborhood patience is wearing thin.

“We have lots of old buildings in the neighborhood, and you can't save them all,” Burns said. “If Go Realty decides they don't want to do the project, or they can't come up with the financing, we may be able to rethink it.”

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312, or via Twitter @bobbauder.

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