Apartment plan vexes Squirrel Hill neighbors

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An apartment building project in the heart of Squirrel Hill that has been stalled for two years appears ready to proceed this fall, despite lingering resentment from neighborhood groups over the design.

Terradime Development says its planned three-story, 19-unit apartment complex at 5637 Forbes will be open for residents next summer.

The company received its building permit on Aug. 25 and has secured $4.4 million from First Commonwealth Bank, city records show.

George Mongell, who runs Connellsville-based Terradime, said in an email that his project is a "thoughtfully designed building that fits contextually with adjacent buildings and the surrounding neighborhood."

The city's planning office agrees that it meets that goal, but neighborhood groups and the city councilman representing the area remain disgruntled over the project's architecture and tortured history.

"He's lost the trust of the community," said Councilman William Peduto.

The main complaint is that Mr. Mongell did not have to resubmit his new building plans to the zoning board after changing them to address earlier complaints, mostly about the building being too high.

His original plan called for four stories, prompting an appeal to the zoning board in 2009 by residents of nearby Marlborough Street and a few residents on Forbes.

One of them, Svetlana Vujanovic of 5627 Forbes, complained that the building would block light from reaching her property and obstruct her view. Those concerns were echoed by others.

Their lawyer in that action, E.J. Strassburger, said Mr. Mongell agreed to knock off a story from the structure and break up the sight lines with a elegant gabled roof.

"This was going to be very tasteful," Mr. Strassburger said last week.

The changes briefly satisfied his clients and another, larger group, the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition.

But since then, Mr. Mongell has eliminated the gabled roof in favor of a flat roof covered with big air conditioning units, opponents say. Mr. Mongell also plans to rent apartments now instead of selling condos.

Essentially, Mr. Peduto and some neighbors say, Mr. Mongell has pulled a bait-and-switch -- getting approval for a high-end project and then changing the plans to build a lower-end one.

"He's changed the plans without a hearing. It's kind of ruining the soul of Squirrel Hill," said Ms. Vujanovic's daughter, Dusica, 26, who has raised numerous complaints about Terradime. "It's a big, boxy building."

Legally, though, Mr. Mongell appears to be on solid footing.

Susan Tymoczko, the city's zoning administrator, signed off on the changes after a design review by the city planning staff.

She said the changes aren't significant enough to require Mr. Mongell to resubmit his plans, and the city law department agreed. And while residents may be upset that Mongell is building rental units instead of condos, Ms. Tymoczko said the zoning board does not make a distinction between the two.

Beyond the changed design, some residents have raised two other complaints against Mr. Mongell. One is that he's failed to maintain a retaining wall after tearing down five homes to make way for the project, endangering nearby properties. But Mr. Mongell said his team "continues to monitor" the wall and will replace it when construction starts.

The second complaint is that Mr. Mongell has been hard to get hold of to answer questions and respond to concerns.

Ray Baum, head of the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition, said his group initially supported Terradime because it felt the project was good for the community.

"We're not against development," he said. "We want to see development in Squirrel Hill, families moving into Squirrel Hill. But he has changed the plans."

And, said Mr. Baum, he's stopped responding to the community. "He won't talk," he said.

Mr. Mongell did not attend the most recent public hearing about the project last month. In an email, he said he had provided written updates to the community in July and August.

He didn't respond to a message asking when he planned to start building.

Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510. First Published October 17, 2011 4:00 AM


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