An Old Neighborhood Re-Blooms Outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
As the jurors of the 2017 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Awards deliberated, they kept returning to the idea of community. Architecturally significant, impeccably tailored historic buildings are, and always will be, important to save, but the field of preservation is increasingly widening its focus to include places that affect daily life for large numbers of people. In the end, that’s exactly what the jurors chose to highlight. The rejuvenation of a neighborhood just outside Pittsburgh (story below) is one of three winners that embody this more holistic view of preservation.
A former auto-repair shop on a quiet corner in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, seems an unlikely neighborhood catalyst. But the building’s potential to help revitalize the struggling Pittsburgh-adjacent borough was exactly why the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation (PHLF) bought it in 2009.
The group cleaned it up, leased the back half to local sculptor James Shipman to use as his studio, and turned the front half of the building into the Landmarks Preservation Resource Center, a hub for educational programming on DIY projects, gardening, real estate, public art, and architecture. “If it has to do with living in a city, we have it at the PRC,” says Karamagi Rujumba, director of public communications and advocacy at PHLF. “It has taken on a regional reach; we have people from Ohio and West Virginia who have come to our programs.”
The project makes up just one piece of the revitalization of Hamnett Place, a historic Wilkinsburg neighborhood with deteriorating housing stock and high property taxes. This unfortunate combination had led to years of disinvestment after the collapse of Pittsburgh’s steel industry in the 1980s and ’90s, but after neighborhood residents asked PHLF to help in 2004, the organization saw a potential path forward. “We took a year and studied the entire neighborhood,” says Rujumba. “We looked at a core street and saw enough density that there [would be] a basis to start restoration, and it could ripple out.”
PHLF purchased three older houses on that core street, Jeanette Street, as well as one on a neighboring block. The buildings were in such bad shape that the walls had almost fallen in. Working with its for-profit development arm, the Landmarks Development Corporation (LDC), the group rehabilitated the houses and sold them to low- to moderate-income buyers before construction was even complete.
Buoyed by this success, PHLF and LDC spent the next several years purchasing and rehabilitating more historic buildings in Hamnett Place. In addition to the Preservation Resource Center and three more single-family houses, they commenced work on two multifamily buildings, The Crescent and The Wilson, containing a total of 27 units. “These were very precarious buildings with no roof structure,” recalls Michael Sriprasert, LDC’s president. Plus, the funding for each renovation entailed a complicated mix of historic tax credits, low-income tax credits, other government funding, and philanthropic grants and donations.
Another multifamily rehab, The Falconhurst, followed, as well as more single-family houses, a smaller apartment building, and even the construction of two new townhouses. In all, PHLF has created 67 units of affordable housing, all occupied by income-qualified residents. It also succeeded in getting the local government to pass a 10-year tax abatement in 2010, providing homeowners with a much-needed respite and helping draw new residents to the area. “In this deteriorating neighborhood filled with abandoned and tax-delinquent housing, we saw community pride develop,” says PHLF President Arthur Ziegler. “We see kids playing ball in the yards.”
Ziegler is justifiably proud of the work his group has done in Hamnett Place, but he says that the rabbit warren of rules on financing and building affordable housing make this type of project difficult to execute. “We’re very concerned about the process to create affordable housing in the United States,” he says. “If it takes 12 years to do 67 units of affordable housing, and excruciating work with bureaucratic regulations, we’re going to be really slow at meeting the need.”