2007 fire in Polish Hill left a gap that residents are eager to fill

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A 2007 fire that destroyed two houses and damaged a third in Polish Hill left a hole at the heart of the neighborhood in the 3100 block of Brereton Street.

At the request of the Polish Hill Civic Association, the Pittsburgh Housing Development Corp. bought the properties and two behind them on Dobson Street two years later and proposed new townhouses for the site.

The neighborhood pushed back. Residents wanted to have a say and they wanted a creative design team to help them say it.

Community discussions began in the fall and will continue Monday with a 6:30 to 9 p.m. design team presentation open to the public at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, 477 Melwood Ave. It will consist of three workshops -- a building block play session that will be photographed for evaluation; a pro forma workshop on the language of real estate development, including how to figure rent formulas; and discussion about how the site might be used and by whom.

Like the neighborhood itself, the area known as the Fire Site is quirky. When the remaining two properties are demolished, it will be a 7,300-square-foot trapezoid that's 18 feet higher on Brereton than on Dobson.

The Pittsburgh Housing Development Corp., a nonprofit arm of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, paid $232,000 for all of the properties, said David Howe, manager of the development corporation. The two existing buildings will be demolished "at some point but not until we are ready to move forward," he said.

To steer the project, the Polish Hill Civic Association, the URA and the housing development corporation formed a committee early last year that included a representative from the Design Center. The Design Center had granted the civic association $27,000 for a design study.

The committee put out a request for proposals, asking architects to team up with developers. It got three and chose Pfaffmann and Associates with Sota Construction Services and Green Development.

"We were interested in something innovative, and we thought that team had the most potential, as Sota's mission includes environmental sustainability," said Alexis Miller, the civic association's board president.

Above all, the neighborhood wants the result to be affordable to people of moderate means, she said.

"Our residents don't want luxury-level residential," Ms. Miller said. "There is a strong interest in retail -- particularly for something that would offer food."

Aside from Alfred's Deli, a convenience grocery that has limited hours, the only place to eat in the area is Lili Cafe.

The Pittsburgh Housing Development Corp. will ultimately sell the properties, but the committee and residents still are discussing whether they will be rentals.

"There's always tension between what's good for the neighborhood and what's marketable," Mr. Howe said.

The architect and developer have their work cut out for them. The site is oddly shaped, and it was identified in the 2011 Polish Hill community master plan as a priority.

"Being right at the center of things, there is psychological and emotional pressure on it to be everything to everybody," Rob Pfaffmann said. "We're thinking the site would hold about 10 residential units. Some folks see a need for small commercial storefronts, a small grocery or an opportunity for a bike shop or restaurant."

He said the neighborhood has brought its values, principles and aspirations to the discussion, wanting to make sure that whatever fills the Fire Site is Polish Hill authentic.

"Our challenge is to design something that's unique to Polish Hill, satisfies all the needs and is financially feasible for [Sota] to build," Mr. Pfaffmann said. "We're going to shoot for it."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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