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House, townhome construction soars in Pittsburgh as more and more people seek the urban lifestyle

Sunday, May 28, 2000

By Joyce Gannon, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It will be next spring or later before the first model home opens at Summerset at Frick Park, the ambitious community of new homes to be built on a slag heap towering above the Monongahela River at the edge of Squirrel Hill.

Six units in the Dinwiddie Street Townhouses in the Hill District, above, have "stone" facades. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette) 

But already, project manager Sally Pfaff has a database of 200 potential buyers who have sought information about the development's 713 single-family homes, townhouses and luxury apartments.

Summerset's partners haven't spent a penny marketing the site; the inquiries were generated purely by chatter about the sprawling project, particularly in Squirrel Hill and Swisshelm Park.

"Our list is just based on word of mouth. We're still designing our Web pages and brochures," Pfaff said, noting that among those who have expressed interest in Summerset are so-called empty-nesters, parents who want to unload their large, family homes now that their children have moved out, and young singles and couples who work in the city and love the idea of living near Downtown in a traditional-style urban neighborhood with sidewalks, trees and front porches.

Used to be you had to buy an aging home in the city to get those amenities and then sink thousands into replacing the kitchen, bathrooms and heating system.

Not anymore.

New home construction in the city is hot -- the hottest it's been in decades, with single-family homes, townhouses and lofts taking shape in a variety of neighborhoods, from the North Side to the South Side, as well as points east and west.

The number of annual building permits the city Planning Department approved for all types of new housing -- including single-family homes, attached townhouses and apartment units -- jumped 325 percent from 121 in 1992 to 514 last year.

Some of that total includes major complexes such as Lincoln at North Shore, 232 apartments along the Allegheny River near the 9th Street Bridge; and Crawford Square, the Lower Hill District development that includes 400-plus rental and for-sale units. But much of it represents small-scale developments scattered throughout the city, on the

Homes in "Gibson Green III" along Irwin Avenue on the North Side. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette) 

South Side, in Lawrenceville and Westwood, and in Garfield and the Hill District.

Real estate experts say the recent boom is driven by a thriving economy and renewed excitement about the city that's largely the result of two new professional sports stadiums going up, as well as recent investment in attractive retail and commercial centers such as the Strip District, the South Side and Downtown.

"Housing will follow, for the most part, where there's a good density of retail and commercial," said Howard "Hoddy" Hanna III of Howard Hanna Real Estate Services.

"It's exciting, to say the least," said Tom Yargo, sales director at Coldwell Banker Real Estate's Shadyside office.

"Developers and realtors and the city have learned that, contrary to some things we hear, urban sales and urban living are on the rise again," he said. "The stability of the economy has helped developers maybe be a little more willing to loosen the purse strings and take a stab at some urban development that in a more depressed economy they wouldn't [try]."

Just eight years ago, it was front-page news when plans were unveiled for Rosemont, a development of 30 new upscale homes just off Beechwood Boulevard in Squirrel Hill, with prices ranging from about $300,000 to $1 million. Rosemont was believed to be the first privately funded, single-family residential development undertaken in Pittsburgh in at least two decades. And it sold quickly.

Now the developers of nearby Summerset, situated just below Rosemont, will try to replicate its rapid sales through a mix of housing options, scenic river views, walking trails and direct access to Frick Park.

Prices for the single-family homes on the 283-acre site are expected to range from about $150,000 for the smallest "cottage" to $375,000 and up for "estates" that might be as large as 4,500 square feet.

Partners in Summerset Land Development Associates are Rubinoff Co., Montgomery & Rust Inc., IBACOS/EQA and Pennrose Falbo.

Rubinoff and Montgomery & Rust already have a successful track record in developing city housing on former industrial sites: They were the team behind the housing at Washington's Landing, where 80-plus luxury townhouses and three single-family residences were built beginning in 1996 on Herrs Island, the Allegheny River island that was once a center for meat processing.

Some Washington's Landing homes -- which originally sold for $140,000 to $600,000 and up -- have already hit the resale market and are moving quickly the second time around, said a Rubinoff spokeswoman.

As part of the "ecological restoration" in Phase One of Summerset at Frick Park, Mike Mooney of Mt. Lebanon and Cheri Campost of Murrysville plant red osier on a slope above Nine Mile Run. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette) 

Not all the new construction going up around the city is priced for upper-end buyers, though.

Take Oakbrook, a development of 55 homes in the city's Westwood section, off Greentree Road near Parkway Center Mall, where construction started two years ago and eight lots remain for sale.

Prices range from $140,000 to slightly more than $200,000 for the single-family homes that include a lot in a classic suburban setting. Buyers of the 42 homes already occupied and five under construction have been mostly city employees, including teachers, police officers and staff from the URA, said Eileen Moore of Elm Realty, which is marketing Oakbrook for builder All-Star Homes.

But about a quarter of Oakbrook's buyers chose to live in the city even though, unlike city workers, they weren't required to, she said.

"I was pleasantly surprised. These people work Downtown and wanted the convenience to work and the cultural attractions."

Proximity to urban centers of offices, retail and entertainment is also the attraction of the South Side, where the city's greatest concentration of new home construction is under way.

"We're finding a younger population that wants more of an urban lifestyle. That's what's driving the demand, and builders and developers are scrambling to fill it," said Barbara Kurdys Miller. The Prudential Preferred Realty sales agent is marketing South Shore Place, a community of upscale townhouses, where builder Signature Homes plans 100 to 120 units. The project also includes conversion of an existing building into four or five lofts.

At South Shore, near the Monongahela River between 16th and 18th streets, prices range from $159,000 for a two-bedroom, 11/2 bath unit with an oversized, one-car garage to $280,000 for a two-bedroom, 21/2 bath end unit with loft and two-car garage.

Twenty-five homes are finished and six are under construction, said Kurdys Miller.

During weekend open houses at South Shore's model home, hundreds have come through, ranging from "young, single, upwardly mobile people to empty-nesters who want a change of lifestyle," Kurdys Miller said.

"New construction is a rare bird in the city. So anything that's new certainly gets looked at."

That was the case with two other new communities developed over the last five years by the South Side Local Development Corp.: Fox Way Commons and New Birmingham, which together include 58 townhouses overlooking the river between 16th and 17th streets.

Prices started at around $90,000 and went as high as $165,000.

At those amounts, "New housing here compares pretty favorably with the price of new housing in the suburbs," said Tom Hardy, who handles real estate development for South Side Local Development.

Most of the buyers for new homes in the South Side, he said, are "young households that really like to be close to town for the night life and the shopping ... and some empty-nesters who like the convenience and not as much maintenance."

The South Side isn't drawing interest from just those who want to build along the riverfront.

On the drawing board, Hardy said, are seven detached, two-bedroom townhouses that South Side Local Development would build on the South Side slopes around Stella and Shelly streets.

Several developers already have converted old schools and former industrial buildings into lofts that attract mostly young professionals who don't want to maintain a large residence.

Among the newest: Southside Lofts, which will include 54 units at 2250 Mary St., the former Duquesne Brewery warehouse.

Six of the units -- which are priced from $125,000 to $185,000 -- have sales agreements pending, according to developers Jake Steiner and Bob Jokl, retired U.S. Steel executives who developed a couple of loft projects in downtown Atlanta.

Their Southside Lofts, which Steiner described as "New York-style industrial living spaces," range from 1,000 to 2,100 square feet and feature 15- to 18-foot-high ceilings.

Included in the base price are an equipped kitchen and bath; buyers get to design the rest.

Neighborhood organizations such as the South Side group are the impetus behind several small projects in which the URA is offering financing assistance to boost revitalization in neighborhoods that aren't typically associated with much of anything new.

Among them is Gibson Green, a dozen single-family homes at Charles and Irwin streets on the North Side that start at $90,071 for a three-bedroom, 1 1/2 bath house with attached garage. Eight have been completed, said Shemariah Waggoner of the North Side Development Council.

Developed by the North Side Leadership Conference, Gibson Green offers buyers a second, deferred mortgage through the URA for up to $35,000, depending on income and family size; and a three-year property tax abatement that's typically granted to new home buyers in the city.

A site superintendent walks through one of the first-floor units at the "Southside Lofts," a converted warehouse. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette) 

The Leadership Conference also is the developer of Voskamp Village, 10 three-bedroom, 1 1/2 bath townhouses in the North Side's Spring Garden neighborhood. Priced at $81,700, six of the 10 units, completed in 1997, have been sold. The URA also is offering deferred mortgages and a reduced mortgage rate at Voskamp Village.

In another North Side neighborhood, the Fineview Citizens Council recently finished 10 single-family homes on Meadville Street that are priced from $84,300 to $93,300. All have three bedrooms and 1 1/2 baths, and some feature decks, porches and garages.

Across town in the city's eastern neighborhoods, builder Steve Catarinella is involved in several new construction projects, including a two-unit townhouse on Kincaid Street, Garfield, priced at $87,900 per unit; and six townhouses on Dinwiddie Street in the Hill District that will feature stone facades reminiscent of turn-of the-century brownstones that originally occupied the street. They will be priced from $96,000 to $97,500.

On Herron Avenue in Polish Hill, Catarinella is constructing three single-family homes for the Polish Hill Civic Association that are priced at $110,000 apiece. Agreements are pending on two of the homes, which include three bedrooms, 1 1/2 baths, integral garages, decks and bay windows in the master bedroom and living room.

Catarinella, who's been building scattered sites of new housing and rehabbing units in Lawrenceville, Garfield and the North Side since 1976, said affordable homes developed in conjunction with the URA "work to bring economic vitality to neighborhoods that were written off years ago. We see potential in all these neighborhoods."

As long as the healthy demand for new urban housing continues, there won't be a shortage of places to build, even though there aren't many huge tracts of undeveloped land available in the city limits.

Some builders are already tearing down old houses on scattered sites to put up new construction, said Hanna, because the land has high value, especially in upper-middle-class neighborhoods such as Shadyside and Point Breeze.

In some low-income neighborhoods, "There's no alternative but to start all over again," said Coldwell Banker's Yargo. "It's a more expedient way to reach progress."

And a few pieces of undeveloped land exist.

Consider this: Peter Gamar, a New York City developer, has proposed constructing more than 1,100 housing units, including perhaps 700 single-family homes, on a parcel he owns in the 31st Ward, near Hays, across the Mon River from Hazelwood.

Though it's far from a done deal, Gamar maintains the project to build homes on his 672 acres is very much alive.

"The engineering process has begun."

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