New homes to transform tawdry streets in East Liberty

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The house Ophelia Coleman lived in for 20 years sits across from a now-vacant house baited with rat poison, a danger sign posted on its facade.

The whole 700 block of North Euclid Avenue seemed to warn people away as owners boarded up one house after another. Since the early 1990s, Ms. Coleman said, gangs, absentee landlords, trash and drug raids stained the scenery.

Into this picture steps the "100-year house," a statuesque prototype that will soon make the block unrecognizable. Early next month, East Liberty Development Inc. will begin marketing six new houses and demolishing boarded-up buildings to make way for nine more.

This complete transformation of one block is part of a long-term strategy to return stability to a cluster of blocks near Highland Park. East Liberty Development, a nonprofit working with the builder S&A Homes, has control of 40 properties on North Euclid, Hays Street and North St. Clair Street. Five homes will be rehabilitated.

In a block where occupied homes are now valued in the $40,000s and $50,000s, the prototype's price tag is comparatively staggering -- from $240,000 to $295,000.

"It is an aggressive price, but the first six will set the market for future phases," said Eric Jester, project manager for East Liberty Development. "We've sold homes in that range in East Liberty."

Ms. Coleman said that in the long run, the new construction "should" help current property owners. "I hope and pray it does."

Mr. Jester said the strategy for the new homes is to market lots the way suburban developers do. S&A Homes has experience selling lots in planned developments with names like Seaton Crest, the Oaks and the Plantation. The difference in the city is that the neighborhoods and its water and sewer lines already exist.

Mr. Jester said ELDI's study of home types and maintenance pointed out that buildings made well earn better stewards.

To get a prototype it hopes to dot the East End landscape with, ELDI worked with two architectural firms -- Moss Architects and Pfaffmann + Associates -- the engineering firms IBACOS and Comfort Home, the city and the builder. They came up with a formula for variations on the same four houses, with pre-built parts to streamline manufacturing and construction. They chose materials that would last at least a century, since longevity was a big part of the solution.

The house promises to be 40 percent more energy-efficient than code requires. It is close to being LEED certifiable, said Mr. Jester, "but we didn't apply for certification" because of the cost.

The two plans each have two facades and two floor plans to choose from. Nearly all have a salt-box top. One plan has an interior courtyard; one has a two-story living room with a overlooking balcony.

The houses are made with hardwood interiors and exterior wood cladding with protective screens.

"It's a $500,000 house, considering the quality," said Mr. Jester. "I wouldn't be surprised if a developer were to get that price [for this house] in Cranberry."

ELDI won a funding award last year for its design from design centers in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, which set up a one-time fund of $1.5 million to reward three proposals.

With support from the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, ELDI will sell the first seven homes with deferred second mortgages, "then we'll go straight-out market," said Mr. Jester. "We will put stickers on the homes to show people exactly how much energy they can expect to save."

Todd Winnor, urban division manager for S&A, based in Valencia, said East Liberty and the North Side's Federal Hill housing are the company's first urban forays.

"In the city it's hard to get things to roll because you need a lot of help with infrastructure," he said. "That's why it's good to step in with ELDI, where they can help get costs down. There is a gap" between the cost of building and the cost of buying, he said, "but in the next five to 10 years, we will see the gap close in the city."


Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.


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