New housing gives South Oakland street a shot at a second life


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Frazier Street in South Oakland runs five blocks with two dead ends, is home to the Dan Marino ballfield, and has a history of close-knit home ownership that linked generations of families.

But blight has told a more recent story, a tangled web of tax liens and vacancy that ran concurrent with a loosening of the social structure. Typical of post-industrial cities, for sure, but the story's latest update is pure Pittsburgh.

Two years ago, the Oakland Planning and Development Corp. bought five properties on Frazier Street at the city treasurer's sale. Four had been vacant, blighted, tax-delinquent homes and one was a vacant lot. On those sites today, five new houses are all occupied, three by young adults whose families had long-established roots in South Oakland.

In the typical Pittsburgh story, homes passed from grandparents to parents to children with no one ever leaving. The decline of the steel industry and loss of other jobs revised that version as young adults left to find jobs in other cities until something drew them back. Often it was the desire to raise their own children near family.

But in some cases, they had just moved to other neighborhoods.

Mike Senko, whose roots are in Panther Hollow, was living in Greenfield with his brother Bobby when their brother Kris got a contract to work on the Frazier Street construction. Kris Senko, managing officer of Senko Construction, their father Bob Senko, its president, and Al DePasquale, owner of October Development, teamed up as Frazier West LLC to redevelop the properties.

"I saw the floor plans and loved the open concept," Mike Senko said. "We sold the house in Greenfield and moved here. I love Oakland. It's good to be back."

His father still lives in Panther Hollow. A grandmother lives on Frazier Street.

Another new resident's parents live on Ward Street, which intersects Frazier.

Adam Sciulli, Mike Senko's childhood friend in the '80s and '90s, bought a new Frazier Street house next to him.

Mr. Sciulli grew up on nearby Coltart Avenue, where his father still lives, and his grandmother lived on Juliet Street, which intersects Frazier. He left the city to attend St. Francis University and later moved to Washington, D.C., for work. He was there almost three years.

When he returned to Pittsburgh, he moved in with his brother in Greenfield. Being friends with the Senkos, he learned about the new housing plan for Frazier.

"When I was a kid, I remember it not being the greatest neighborhood, that side of Oakland," he said. "I wasn't around that street for a while, so when I heard about the development I was a little bit leery. But I went over and saw the new townhouses and the little garden by Dan Marino Field, then I saw the view of the city, which is amazing."

His home has a rooftop deck.

"My dad's family emigrated from Italy to Oakland, and he was very happy I moved back."

"We're seeing more young professionals interested in this area," said Wanda Wilson, executive director of Oakland Planning and Development.

Two of the new Frazier Street home owners work at Google and American Eagle.

She said more people want to buy homes in Oakland than there are homes available. All four Oakland neighborhoods have numerous vacant homes, especially north and west, but many owners can't be found or don't want to sell. Tax-delinquent properties take time to get into tax-paying hands because clearing the property title is tedious.

Then there's the struggle to build houses affordably enough for developers to get their rewards. The Urban Redevelopment Authority offered deferred second mortgages to help make the Frazier Street homes more affordable. Other funding came from the Allegheny County Community Infrastructure and Tourism Fund, Oakland Planning and Development, Dollar Bank and Neighborhood Allies.

Architect Bob Baumbach designed the homes, four of which sold before construction was completed. They sold for $168,000 for a vanilla box to $220,000 for a fully built-out unit. They fit in with the older architectural fabric but have bright facades, back decks over small yards and private parking.

Oakland Planning and Development has built and renovated scores of homes for resale to owner-occupiers over the years. It developed two new homes on Frazier several years ago. This time, it secured financing for the private developers to take the lead.

"They were doing similar work on a similar scale, infill housing with community development in mind," Ms. Wilson said. "South Oakland has been a priority of ours for some time. There are still a majority of home owners there and we want to maintain that."


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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