From left: Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Teresa Radwan, a member of the Brightwood Civic Group, BCG President Teresa Radwan and City Council President Darlene Harris. (Photo courtesy Suzi Neft)

One of the Northside’s longest-running residential construction projects is finally near its end.

Members of the Brightwood Civic Group, alongside Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Council President Darlene Harris and others, joined together to celebrate the near completion of Washburn Square at a ribbon cutting on June 21. The construction, more than 10 years in the making, turned a dilapidated housing complex between Superior Avenue and Hodgkiss Street into three single-family homes and an adjacent park.

Since purchasing the neglected group of 42 rental row houses from Ondek Investments in 2001, the Brightwood Civic Group has learned the rollercoaster ride that is urban redevelopment.

 
Why did it take so long?

“The actual building and selling of them has been nothing compared to tearing the old buildings down,” said BCG’s current President, Diane Annis-Dixon.

Her answer sheds light on the difficulty inherent in using federal dollars to build on previously used city land. In order to purchase the site, the BCG had partnered with the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, the development arm of the city of Pittsburgh.

Because the project received federal funding, the Northside Leadership Conference, who acted as the project manager for the BCG, had to help tenants find new housing. As late as 2007, nearly 20 people still lived in the complex, according to Ed Brandt, then director of the BCG, and the community group was beginning to rack up bills.

“We had to repair a broken sewer line, because someone was still living in the apartments,” Brandt said.

And then there was the asbestos fiasco, a problem the community group couldn’t skirt because of costly liability issues. Using government money forced them to pay for a study before the actual removal.

“The costs of the asbestos study [and removal] was more costly than the actual demolition,” Brandt said.

This caused anther hitch in the plans. During the asbestos removal, the BCG ran out of money. Group members went to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, then on city council, and also to former State Rep. Don Walko. Both eventually found money to help Brightwood continue the process.

“It’s costly to build in Pittsburgh,” said David Howe, head of the URA’s residential housing subsidiary, the Pittsburgh Housing Development Corporation, which headed up the project in later years. “We’re dealing with a lot of sites that were already used, previously developed land. So once you start digging, you don’t know what you’ll find.”

The original designs were for a group of 17 or 18 single-family units. But the idea started to change when those involved discovered the high value of having a nearby park.

“The idea here is that the green space will help to improve property values in the surrounding neighborhood,” Howe said. “I just saw a CMU study that gives empirical data about houses having $39,000 [more] value around larger parks, and we’re trying to see what that does around a smaller park.”

“You need to give a lot of credit to Rob Stephany [the executive director of the URA who pushed for the park idea],” Ed Brandt said. “I expect the city will reproduce [this open spaces concept] elsewhere.”

“We are hoping that this could be a future model for the URA and the PHDC’s development,” Howe agreed.

Two of the three units are already under a sales agreement, and the third one, according to Howe, is receiving considerable interest from a prospective buyer.

“Families will be in every unit by the end of the summer,” Howe said. “We didn’t expect that these units would sell so quickly. Brightwood hasn’t had any new construction in awhile, so it was an untested market. We were pleasantly surprised.”

The houses fall under the Act 42 enhanced area, which means their buyers receive a 10-year tax abatement that only requires them to pay taxes on the land’s worth prior to the home construction.

Based on this experience, Howe said he could imagine future housing projects in Brightwood.

“It’s nestled into the neighborhood. There’s stability on Hodgkiss Street, there’s a lot of home ownership in the area, so it has a lot going for it.”

“There was this lady who signed the original sales agreement who was part of our group, Shirley Quaquarucci, who used to say, ‘I’ll never see those new houses go up,’” recalled Ed Brandt with a laugh. “I called her a couple of weeks ago, and I said ‘Shirley, you’re going to lose your bet.’

“My mother used to say she’d never live to see it get finished, and unfortunately she was right,” Dixon said. “It was great that at the ribbon cutting, I was there to represent her.”