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War Streets' renovation plan sought

| Friday, July 12, 2002

When Julius Troiani bought a three-story apartment building about 10 years ago, the building was supposed to stay empty. The landlord emptied the 12 units by declining to renew the tenants' leases and didn't go looking for new ones.

Even so, Troiani, one of the city's most successful private real estate developers, was not surprised to hear that the boarded-up property he owns at 1305 Arch St. in the Mexican War Streets section of the North Side had recently been opened up again by drug addicts looking for a place to get high.

"We go over there every so often and board it back up," he said.

Troiani isn't the only party tired of how things have worked out with his and other vacant buildings in this gradually recovering neighborhood. Residents claim Troiani is just another suburban slumlord, someone who buys property in the War Streets and refuses to renovate or sell because he dreams of scoring a huge profit by selling off the house someday.

For his part, Troiani defends his refusal to invest in the apartments, claiming the city, not he, is responsible for cleaning up the neighborhood. "The city's problem is they don't have a master plan for the War Streets. They need to clean up the lots and alleyways around here, and that way I can attract the right kind of tenants, which is not what you're getting on the North Side right now," he said.

Despite his less-than-neighborly approach to the War Streets, you've got to admire Troiani for being up-front. Finding an absentee landlord willing to talk about their vacant property is about as rare as having your security deposit returned in full. And as a lifelong Pittsburgher, Troiani insists he's serious about urban renewal and inner-city investment.

During the late 1990s, the Troiani family, which once operated the Pilot House, a floating riverside restaurant, did transform a former produce warehouse on Smallman Street in the Strip District into nightclubs and restaurants. And the former Hill District resident, who owns the PaPa's J's restaurant chain, is undertaking the massive renovation of the old Jet Air manufacturing plant into an upscale apartment block in the Strip later this year.

But Mexican War Streets Society President Randy Buffington says without private investment from wealthy developers such as Troiani — who, by the way, lives in a $650,000 home in Mt. Lebanon — the area faces a Catch-22 where neither the city nor real estate speculators will make the first move.

"The real shame is how many people who live in this neighborhood would be willing to make that building into something really special. Blaming the city for not redoing your property is just irresponsible," Buffington said.

Buffington and others complain Troiani has benefited previously from city investment and tax breaks through Urban Redevelopment Authority programs that have helped him develop several lucrative properties, from Downtown parking lots to several dozen rental units spread across the city.

There seems to be no end anywhere in sight to the stalemate, but with the URA possibly moving to close the Garden adult movie theater, located just two blocks from the disputed Arch Street building, Troiani hints that he may consider sprucing up his investment-property-turned-crackhouse "in a few years."

As for the other similar properties in the area, well, the wait continues.

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