More apartments planned at former Allegheny County health building site in Oakland

Office space ditched; ‘luxury’ housing only for Forbes location

A major redevelopment of the former Allegheny County Health Department building in Oakland has undergone big changes, with nearly all office space eliminated in favor of more apartments.

MWK Forbes LLC, the team behind the redevelopment, has ditched plans for 50,000 square feet of office space as part of the Forbes Avenue development and will add another 59 apartments instead, bringing the total number of units to 389.

Gary Wilson, one of the partners in MWK Forbes, said the team decided to drop the office space when it was unable to find anyone willing to sign on in advance of construction despite the tight Oakland office market. MWK wanted such a commitment before it got started on the work.

“Tenants won’t lease before the space is completed. We weren’t willing to be speculative on the office space,” he said.

With the extra space, MWK decided to increase the number of apartments to be built as part of the project. It is partnering with Ambling University Development Group — a Valdosta, Ga., firm that specializes in student housing — to construct the units.

Mr. Wilson said the demand for apartments appears to be strong. Market studies indicated that the biggest audience for the units could be graduate students and others in the 22- to 30-year-old age group.

MWK is “leaning toward luxury” with the apartments. Plans call for a sky lounge and a terrace deck with grass, trees and planters. There also will be a fitness center, but plans for a swimming pool were dropped. Rental rates have yet to be established.

The overall redevelopment, expected to cost in excess of $50 million, also will feature a 138-room limited service hotel and a 363-space parking garage, with another 131 spaces dedicated to bicycles. Mr. Wilson said MWK is looking at an extended stay hotel, particularly given the nearby hospitals and universities in Oakland.

City planning commission members will be briefed on the project at their meeting next week.

The development they will review differs markedly from the one presented at a community meeting in Oakland last spring. At that time, MWK was proposing a 330-unit apartment building, a 50,000-square-foot office building, and a 125- to 150-room hotel, plus 5,000 square feet of retail space and parking for 400 cars.

MWK now is planning about 7,000 square feet of retail on Forbes Avenue. It also envisions 10,000 square feet of either office or retail space on Fifth Avenue near Carlow University. Mr. Wilson anticipates that it will be office space, saying the area, with busy Fifth Avenue right outside the entrance, “is not retail friendly in my opinion.”

The plans it will present to the commission next week will be for the apartment building, the related retail and perhaps office space, and the parking. If they are approved, it then will seek approval for the hotel, which would be built on adjoining land.

To clear the way for the redevelopment, MWK plans to demolish the old health department building and two houses adjacent to it in October.

It hopes to complete site work by the end of the year and start construction by March 1. It expects to have the apartments completed by the summer of 2016 and the hotel done that fall.

MWK bought the health department building from the county in February for $4.9 million. It purchased the two houses for $775,000. The development team is made up of members of Massaro Properties and the Langholz Wilson Ellis real estate firm and architect Tasso Katselas.

Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262.

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