New life planned for the Highland Building in East Liberty

City redevelopment board to vote soon

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For more than two decades, the Highland Building in East Liberty wooed developers just as the Sirens of Greek mythology lured sailors -- and with the same deadly results.

Now another will try to tame the stubborn 13-story high-rise.

The Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority board is expected to vote Thursday on a recommendation to sell the building and the adjacent Wallace Building to Highland Wallace Joint Venture for nearly $1.9 million.

Highland Wallace Joint Venture, a partnership involving developer Walnut Capital and Massaro Properties, is proposing to convert the two buildings into 130 apartments, mostly one-bedrooms, at a cost of $28 million.

The project also includes about 5,000 square feet of retail space and a 180-space parking garage.

Construction of Walnut on Highland is expected to start in March.

The first units should be ready to rent in summer 2013, said Gregg Perelman, a Walnut Capital principal.

Highland Wallace Joint Venture is the latest in a long line of developers -- eight or so, at least -- to try to tackle the historic structure, built 101 years ago by industrialist Henry Clay Frick.

All have failed, whether the project involved condominiums, hotel rooms or another use. URA Executive Director Rob Stephany, referring to developers, once said that the building "chewed them up and spit them out."

But Mr. Perelman said Highland Wallace has a key advantage over the others who have tried and failed -- the parking garage.

Funded with the help of a $4.5 million state redevelopment assistance capital grant, the garage will provide on-site parking for the apartment dwellers.

Mr. Perelman called it the key piece to the project, one other developers lacked.

"The parking was critical. Once we had the parking, we knew it was a way to make this happen," he said.

Apartments will rent in the $1,000 to $1,100 range. Mr. Perelman believes the project complements the restaurant and retail development occurring in East Liberty.

It could be a good location for the Google employees who work at nearby Bakery Square, which also was developed by Walnut Capital, and college students.

Mr. Perelman said a Carnegie Mellon University shuttle bus runs right past the Highland Building.

"It's good for campus connections," he said.

In addition, he said there continues to be a "very strong" demand for housing in the East End, given the proximity of retail attractions like Trader Joe's, Whole Foods Market and Target.

Highland Wallace is in the process of finalizing financing with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

It also hopes to secure historic tax credits for the project, as the Highland Building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Also on Thursday, the board will consider:

• Ratifying an agreement with consultant Patrick Edelen at a cost of no more than $3,000 to prepare a basic conditions report on the Civic Arena property and an adjacent parking lot as part of the planning for a tax increment financing district.

• Authorizing an application for $500,000 from a county economic development fund financed by gambling to help fund a proposed $74.7 million hotel, office and retail project on Forbes Avenue near Market Square.

The URA also is seeking $500,000 from the same fund for the proposed conversion of the Reizenstein School into a $119 million mixed use project dubbed Bakery Square 2.0 proposed by Walnut Capital.


Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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