Groups jockey over future of California-Kirkbride on North Side
March 14, 2011 4:00 AM
Greg Mucha, left, and Ronell Guy own and manage properties on Brighton Place in California-Kirkbride. She advocates for Section 8 tenants, he advocates for more market-rate investment.
By Diana Nelson Jones Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For decades it seemed no one cared about California-Kirkbride, a wedge of land between Manchester, the Central North Side, Perry South and Marshall-Shadeland.
Today, people are arguing over what's left of it.
Densely built of winsome architectural styles in the late 1800s, the neighborhood fell to blight in the wake of the city's population losses. It has less than half the buildings it once had.
Almost 40 percent of its 852 residents live below the poverty level, double the rate of the city.
Northside Associates, the largest property owner in the neighborhood with 108 federally subsidized rental properties, has razed 11 in the past two years, according to Bureau of Building Inspection records.
In a limited partnership with the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing, which manages Northside Associates' portfolio, the company also has repaired properties, cleaned vacant lots, planted trees and fixed public lighting.
Resident Brent Boss, who with his landlord and next-door neighbor Tom Corcoran has hauled tires and debris from the hillsides, said his suburban relatives ask if he feels safe, "and I tell them, 'Would you feel safe on a farm? Because it's that kind of quiet here.' "
But all is not so quiet.
At planning meetings that started two years ago, middle-class investors from the Central North Side and coalition members have clashed over where the neighborhood is heading.
Ronell Guy, the coalition's executive director, acknowledges that "there needs to be housing for all kinds of people. But this is the last sliver [of the North Side flats] low-income people can afford. We're trying to preserve that."
She said she is concerned the Central North Side will try to annex California-Kirkbride.
"Everybody thinks they're doing the right thing," she said. "But one person's agenda isn't more important than another's."
The Central Northside Neighborhood Council wants to help plan the development of multi-income housing in California-Kirkbride, said council board president Greg Spicer. But the council's entreaties have been rebuffed, "even though we're the people who are actually doing multi-income housing," he said.
"We feel our community has a voice" in what happens in California-Kirkbride.
Some Central North Siders say they believe Northside Associates' owner Bob Mistick is demolishing old properties and sprucing things up with a plan to build more Section 8 rentals.
Mr. Mistick, who bought out his brothers to run Northside Associates two years ago, said he has no plans to build more subsidized housing and has not purchased property.
When a portfolio of buildings went up for sale last year, several on Brighton Place sold quickly to Central North Siders.
Greg Mucha, who owns other rental properties in the North Side, said he called "anyone I knew who might want to invest to diversify the neighborhood."
Five parties on the same day closed on properties that they renovated and now rent at market rate.
"I have no problem with what's here now," said Mr. Mucha, referring to existing Section 8 homes. "But we would oppose more. Seventy-five percent of Brighton Place is low-income housing. People should realize by now that you have to have mixed incomes to have a successful neighborhood."
Mr. Mistick said Brighton Place is "the garden spot of the neighborhood and that should be celebrated. But what the community needs to know is that our new management group is trying to fix up the environment and deliver social services for my residents.
"I'm trying to make things more life-affirming for people of less means."
Ms. Guy said that before the 2-year-old partnership, Northside Associates had less discerning standards for tenants. "Now there's a home visit, orientation and classes and we improve units so people who have some capacity and choice don't just walk away," she said. "We want this to be a neighborhood of choice, not of chance."
She initiated a community plan two years ago with support from the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
"We applied for resources to do multi-neighborhood planning, including Perry Hilltop, the Charles Street Valley, California-Kirkbride and the Central North Side," she said. "We said, 'Everybody come.' But some people came over here and were so disruptive and disrespectful."
As the planning moves forward, it will not include investors such as Brad Spencer and his wife, Elena Firsova. Residents of the Central North Side, they bought a vacant lot on Brighton Road from the city last year after gardening on it with permission. They stopped going to planning meetings because Mr. Spencer said the meetings "are chaotic and abusive."
Then part of their lot was bulldozed by Northside Associates crews. Mr. Spencer, an outspoken critic, said he thinks it was malicious.
Ms. Guy said she understood the bulldozed part was Northside Associates' property and that the land was cleared to give a nearby mechanic a place to get cars out of an alley.
Charles Buki, a Washington, D.C., consultant whom Ms. Guy hired to help with the plan, said antagonism is preventing negotiation toward "a sensible center."
"The perception in Cal-bride is that Central North Side is great with blueberries and architecture as long as poor brown people aren't part of the discussion, and the perception in Central North Side is that Cal-bride only cares about poor brown people even if it means reduced property value and crime."
Everyone with a stake in the neighborhood "needs to get a reality check," he said.
"This is not 2005 San Francisco or Manhattan in 2004. This is not a hot market, and there are no real gentrification pressures. Low-income folks and their advocates have to realize that stability comes from economic diversity, so they have to do their part to welcome middle-class folks.
"On the other hand, the Central North Side will make the case that any additional affordable housing threatens the trajectory of the Central North Side, and I would make the case that it is not so."
The best thing for California-Kirkbride may be nothing for a while, he said.
"The issue here is patience," he said. "Can the Central North Side let this place grow organically and keep calm? Patience is also necessary on the Cal-bride side. We may need temporary uses that aren't what African Americans typically consider emblematic of success," such as a blueberry farm, which he said could generate $32,000 per acre as a neighborhood enterprise.
"You build around what remains slowly and carefully," he said. "If we treat it as a bank and govern future use to benefit current residents, there is enough land and really cool architecture, great-view corridors and an underlying urban design that is already there.
"We have a good sense of the best way to get from A to B. Now let's figure out what's on the community's mind."