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Developer pushes for revitalized Hill

| Sunday, April 20, 2003, 12:00 p.m.

When Irvin and Janicee Williams built Williams Square in 1997, they hoped the new office building would spark an era of rebirth in their long-neglected Hill District neighborhood.

"We made a promise to ourselves that if we ever got two nickels to rub together, that we were going to come back to our community," said Williams, 49, whose childhood memories of a thriving Hill District, where his father owned a barbecue restaurant, fuel his dreams today.

The Hill District lost the majority of its businesses and middle-class residents in the 1960s, after the city cleared land in the lower Hill to build the Civic Arena, since renamed Mellon Arena.

But in the years since the couple built Williams Square on Centre Avenue and opened their financial services business there, the bulk of the Hill's commercial district remained depressed. Irv Williams decided he would have to try harder to fix the Hill on his own.

So he became a real estate developer. By Williams' own account, he was the state's first black developer west of Harrisburg.

For Williams, who admits he can be iron-willed, learning how to play politics in the development business has been difficult and sometimes painful. Still, he's had the opportunity to realize some of his dreams for the Hill; and as his experience grows, so do his ambitions for his firm, Ebony Development LLC.

At the same time, the competition has arrived.

Williams lets out a laugh when he is reminded of a letter he received a few years ago from Mulugetta Birru, the executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

"You've got to play your politics right," Birru recalled writing. "Don't fight with politicians, because politicians can get in your way."

Williams said he admires Birru. But he didn't like the advice. He didn't want to worry about pleasing politicians. He simply wanted to get things done. He wrote back: "One man, one vote."

Since that time, Williams has been forced to rethink his stance.

In 2001, he opposed Sala Udin, whom he has known since childhood, to back a losing city council candidate, Richard Portis.

And Williams has butted heads with City Magistrate Dan Butler. In late March, he wound up in jail on a contempt of court charge after he refused to clean up construction debris from several parcels. Williams says he wasn't responsible for illegally dumping the debris and plans to appeal.

But he also is rethinking his hard-line approach.

"I really need to get smarter about politics. My latest comment is, 'Dr. Birru was right.'"

Still, the uncompromising attitude that can grate on powerful people also has helped Williams grow a profitable firm in a tough, insiders' business.

Udin, who admits he wasn't always a fan of Williams', said last week, "We have since moved past those differences and I have been supportive of him. He is an important developer, because he is a Hill District developer."

Donna Berry, owner of D. Berry's Books, Gifts & Cafe in One Hope Square, said the building gave her a beautiful setting for her new store. Her husband, Eugene G. Berry, opened a law office in the same building.

"It's happening before our very eyes," she said. "The neighborhood is building up. People are really beginning to appreciate the possibilities here and they're grasping them."

Ebony Development today is involved in eight development projects and is the contractor and developer for the $7 million Lincoln Larimer Community Center, a three-story building under construction in the East End that will have a gymnasium, pool and office tower.

"I see a great future in this company," said Williams' daughter Shimira, a vice president at Ebony. "We won't just be in Pittsburgh. We won't just be local boys. That's the ultimate plan."

Williams said a shared vision, not money, motivates his staff, which includes two daughters and former Hill Community Development Corp. director Elbert Hatley.

That vision met with opportunity last year when the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Udin and other community leaders began meeting to plan a massive redevelopment of the Hill along Centre Avenue.

Ebony submitted a plan that included a grocery store, a biotech center, an entertainment district and recording studio, plus townhomes, apartments and restaurants.

The firm was competing against two other groups.

On April 10, Birru announced that the URA board had chosen to enter into exclusive negotiations with New Markets LLC, a Las Vegas firm, whose founders have done urban revitalization projects in several cities.

After the announcement, Williams and his daughter Janai, a vice president at Ebony, smiled politely and lingered in the hallway to meet New Markets' founders. They pledged to play an assisting role in the project, and New Markets has agreed to work with Ebony.

Williams joked that Janai was teaching him how to behave in awkward situations like this.

Sipping coffee at D. Berry's the following week, Williams said he wasn't resentful. He would be happy to be involved in any way in a project that represented his dreams for the Hill.

"It doesn't have to be my idea. I'm looking forward to working with New Markets," Williams said with a politician's flair. "We don't care who does it, as long as it gets done."

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