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North Side greenery sprouts from A&P's fall

| Thursday, Sept. 14, 2006

Though real estate developer James A. Wolfinger intends to build green spaces around his new North Side condos, he didn't anticipate the windfall of nature that came his way last week.

Wolfinger purchased an abandoned A&P supermarket on the corner of Brighton Road and West North Avenue and found several two-story trees growing in the old neighborhood grocery store.

"The place was vacant so long and had suffered so much damage, there was only a shell of the building with some raccoons and trees inside," said Wolfinger, of the North Side.

The raccoons can stay if they can afford the $350,000 price of the condos slated for the site. The trees will have to go.

In fact, the entire building is scheduled to be torn down today, more than three decades after it was last occupied.

The building couldn't be coming down at a better time. Placed at a prominent intersection, the crumbling facade was one of the first sights greeting commuters entering the central North Side from several directions.

Along with the grimy Garden adult movie theater just down the block, the former A&P was an eyesore that made serious efforts to revitalize this neighborhood seem almost futile.

The building was owned by North Side investors Robert and Tom Mistick, who told Wolfinger last year that they would never sell the property -- despite the fact that it shared a wall with six luxury condos Wolfinger is building on adjacent Beech Avenue.

On the other side of that decaying wall, Wolfinger has spent 18 months transforming a former adult retardation center into upscale homes. Once completed, they will sell for just under a half-million bucks.

Getting the deed to the long abandoned supermarket was an unexpected piece of luck for Wolfinger, who faced the prospect of selling luxury homes next to one of Pittsburgh's 1,200 vacant properties.

As is often the case, vacant buildings attract rats, cockroaches, and crackheads in equal measure. None of these are viable selling points for luxury homes.

It's been a long, nerve-wracking haul for the developer.

Because he chose to build in one of the city's historic districts, he faced several grueling committee meetings with the Allegheny West Civic Council. Some residents told Wolfinger that they would rather see vacant properties in their community than real estate development.

"I told everyone here that their property values would rise 10 percent the minute I tear the supermarket down," he said. "Some of them thought the space should still be saved for a supermarket or single-family homes, even thought it sat for 35 years."

With the biggest hurdle facing him now gone, Wolfinger hopes to complete his Beech Avenue condos by winter and start work on the A&P site by year's end. This time, the trees will be outside the property.

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