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URA and developers vowing progress in Hill District

Wednesday, October 02, 2002

By Dan Fitzpatrick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Mulu Birru is not one to get nostalgic about the Hill District's celebrated past.

"People think the old times will come back, that the Hill will be the center of entertainment," said Birru, director of the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority. But, "It is not going to be like it used to be before."

Mulu Birru, director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, in front of the New Granada Theatre on Centre Avenue in the Hill District -- "People think the old times will come back, that the Hill will be the center of entertainment. It is not going to be like it used to be before." (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

In fact, Birru wants people to be "realistic" about a pending redevelopment of the neighborhood's historic entertainment district, emphasizing solid real estate decisions in a place nearly ruined by urban renewal, social neglect and the riots that followed the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"I am just talking about reality," he said.

Problem is, no neighborhood in Pittsburgh attaches more emotion to large-scale redevelopment than the Hill, a largely African-American enclave that borders Downtown and once was known nationally for its mix of black entertainment, culture and night life. In the last nine months, Birru and his city-controlled development agency have been purchasing vacant lots, boarded-up buildings and abandoned homes in the Middle Hill, along the same streets where jazz greats Billy Eckstine, Lena Horne and Erroll Garner held sway a half-century ago.

It has its eye on dozens and dozens more.

Having collected the property, Birru now is asking developers to send him proposals for a 33-acre swath in the heart of the Hill, along Centre and Wylie avenues.

The area borders Wylie and the streets of Rose, Heldman and Soho. The URA's strategy, outlined in a letter to developers this week, is that developers "keep the best" buildings along Centre and "develop the rest."

Already, 11 national and local developers are interested, and there is talk of a new 17,000-square-foot Save-A Lot grocery store, a new office building for the Urban League, a new Carnegie Library building and as many as 100 units of housing from McCormack, Baron and Associates, the same St. Louis-based firm that developed Crawford Square, the highly successful housing complex just east of the Mellon Arena. Also, Central Baptist Church is planning a two-building office and retail development at the drug-plagued corner of Centre and Kirkpatrick Street, a junction that Birru refers to as the "center of gravity" for the neighborhood.

But Birru's efforts to change the heart of the Hill are not without controversy.

Online Map:
The Centre of the Hill



First, there is the inherent neighborhood suspicion of the URA. Despite Birru's insistence that no properties will be taken against an owner's will, people still remember the 1950s and 1960s, when the URA removed 1,300 buildings, 413 businesses and 8,000 people to make room for the Civic Arena at a time when people had no contact with the city until the acquisition had been made.

"I am afraid that suspicion and skepticism is going to exist well beyond this project," said Sala Udin, a City Council member who represents the Hill and led a recent effort to establish development guidelines for the Centre Avenue area. "It has existed for at least two generations and probably will continue."

But, "When you look at [the URA's] specific behavior in this project, it has been sterling."

Not everyone agrees with that assessment.

Among those feeling slighted by the URA is the Hill House, the largest employer in the Hill and a well-known social service agency overlooking Centre. Hill House director James Henry said the URA promised to address the Hill House's parking needs, but continued to do nothing about it. Henry also is upset that the URA took away a Hill House option to buy land along Centre after the Hill House had it for 10 years without developing it. The URA sold the land to developer Irv Williams, prompting a contentious URA meeting ending in a shoving match between Williams' son and a Hill District man who supported the Hill House.

The two men had to be separated.

"Instead of working with us, we felt that we were shown little or no consideration considering the role we played and have played in our community over 30 years," Henry said.

The second big challenge to a Middle Hill redevelopment, other than an inherent skepticism about the URA, is an ongoing war of personalities that involves several of the neighborhood's best-known figures.

One such person is Williams, a financial analyst who as a child worked at his father's Centre Avenue restaurant, "Irv's-Stop-N-Go." Williams, in the last seven years, has turned himself into the most active private developer on the Hill. He and his wife emptied their retirement account and dipped into their daughter's college fund to build the Hill's first modern office building in 1995, calling it Williams Square. The couple recently finished work on a second Hill office building, called One Hope Square, on the land once optioned by the Hill House.

But Williams ran into stiff opposition in his attempt to renovate the New Granada Theatre, one of the last entertainment landmarks still standing from the 1930s and 1940s. The Hill Community Development Corp. purchased the 75-year-old Centre Avenue building in 1995, and Williams proposed a makeover in 2000 that in his mind would have returned the building to the splendor of his youth, with a 400-seat banquet hall, a glass atrium, a courtyard and a third-floor supper club seating 260 people.

The URA, however, never got excited about Williams' idea.

Nor did Udin, who sits on the URA board and the board of the nonprofit Hill Community Development Corp., which owns the Granada. As it turns out, Williams' Granada plan would have displaced Udin's House of the Crossroads, a nonprofit drug treatment agency that Udin founded and still oversees as its chairman.

Talking about Williams, Udin said, "I thought that his New Granada project was way too expansive, way too big and way too ambitious."

Udin and Williams butted heads again in 2000 over the proposed purchase of vacant land on Centre, near Dinwiddie Street. Udin's House of the Crossroads wanted the land for an expansion of its headquarters, and Williams wanted it for a new office building. The dispute went to a city auction, and House of the Crossroads won, with a $70,500 bid.

Udin and Williams went at it again in 2001, when Williams supported Richard Portis' campaign for Udin's City Council seat.

Udin won that contest, too.

Both men now say there is no animosity between them.

"I have never been opposed to Irv Williams," Udin said. "I have opposed some projects Irv Williams supported, and I have opposed some political activity that Irv has engaged in, such as his campaigning to get Portis elected as City Council representative." But Udin said he was a fan of the two office buildings Williams developed on Centre, noting that he supported both of them.

Williams, for his part, said, "I have never had a real issue with the guy."

But he also said, "I have sunk $8 million [in the Hill]. I don't know of a lot of others who have done that. I am concerned about protecting the investments I have made here."

When asked about the differences between Williams and Udin and how that might affect what the URA wants to do along Centre, Birru said, "We don't get involved in the politics."

"We will go with the winner."

For Birru, the idea of a large approach to redeveloping the Hill's business district came to him in the spring of 2000, during a tour of the Hill with a developer. They stopped at the corner of Kirkpatrick and Centre and both realized that this "is really the center of gravity for the Hill," Birru said.

Birru took his ideas to the neighborhood in June 2000. He emphasized in community meetings that the URA did not want to take buildings against the owners' will and that if businesses wanted to stay, the URA would allow them to do that.

In the last nine months, the URA has purchased 10 properties along Centre for $325,000, and it has set aside another $400,000 for acquiring more sites in the near future. "We try to buy them all," said Marc Knezevich, a senior project development specialist with the URA. The agency is currently negotiating for nine more properties along Centre, and the URA also is planning to take control of 77 city-owned or tax delinquent properties near Centre and Wylie avenues in 2003.

Proposals from developers are due by Nov. 14, and the URA expects to make its selections in the spring of 2003.

"Maybe the Hill is at a point where everybody is on the same page," said state Rep. Bill Robinson, who represents the Hill.

Dan Fitzpatrick can be reached at dfitzpatrick@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1752.

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