Mount Washington parish, developer to swap lots

Deal gives groups a year to plan

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St. Mary of the Mount parish in Mount Washington needs fellowship space, and an empty lot sits across Bertha Street that's just about the right size for a fellowship hall.

For almost 10 years, the lot has been the subject of legal challenges by neighbors against developer Craig Cozza's plans for a townhouse development.

Meanwhile, the former parish school on Bingham Street is just about the right size for condos.

In what Rev. Michael Stumpf called "a great example of stepping outside the box," he and Mr. Cozza have worked out a deal. For the next year, Mr. Cozza and the parish have an agreement that if they can pull off what they want to do on each other's property, they will do a straight, no-cash swap of property a year from now.

They signed the deal a few weeks ago, Rev. Stumpf said, "so the hourglass has been flipped and we have much work to do."

Mr. Cozza and the parish have one year to complete feasibility studies, plans, financial strategies and do the zoning and planning dance with each other's property.

It's a potential solution that seemed obvious to a number of congregants, Rev. Stumpf said. "People would say, 'What about that place next door? Can't we talk to him about that property?' [Mr. Cozza] was very open to the conversation, and since he was talking about doing condos, with a building already in place, [the switch] seemed logical."

For almost 10 years, a sign on Mr. Cozza's property has announced the coming of luxury townhouses. His plans never moved forward because of legal challenges to the proposed height.

Mr. Cozza, who could not be reached for comment, gave a statement for a news release issued by the parish, saying, "It would be a win-win if the church can leverage this vacant land for ministry and activities. Maybe God intended for it to turn out this way all along."

The Diocese's closure of the Bishop Leonard Saint Mary of the Mount Academy in 2012 was a blow on the heels of the parish's more gradual realization that 140 kids rattling around in a school built for 1,000 signified a larger issue.

"We are in the process of re-envisioning ourselves, much like the neighborhood and the city," Rev. Stumpf said, noting that the school had become a merged school and that the parish recently combined with Saint Justin. "We have all gone through transformations with changes in industry, economics" and population. "That closure was very challenging for the community. There was 100 years of Catholic education there."

At the same time, he said, Mount Washington is seeing an influx of younger people.

"We have no transitional space for fellowship" without renting a site away from the parish campus, which includes a historic church and the office building with an inadequate parking lot between them.

The intention, he said, would be to build a multi-purpose building for social events, the parish's annual ethnic festival, more ministry space and a gathering space for the Pittsburgh Catholic Deaf Community, which is part of the parish.

"We have done spatial analyses and we're also looking at the space we already have" in case there is any chance to reconfigure it for better use. "We have as members of our parish architects, a facilities manager at Pitt and others who are volunteering their time and talent to this."

Asked what happens if one party forges a doable plan and the other doesn't, Rev. Stumpf said "no door is closed" on the possibilities.

"We will be moving toward a capital campaign, and we would want this building to be a green building, self-sustaining. We also know we have to be sensitive to the larger community around us in whatever we do."


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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