Former Pittsburgh school transformed into lofts

Mount Washington's Prospect School getting a new life


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It still has the smell of a school, but a cavernous hush has filled its halls of empty red lockers, some of their doors ajar, since 2006. By next spring, the old Prospect School in Mount Washington will ring with the voices of tenants in 67 loft apartments.

Work began recently to remove asbestos under floor tiles. That work will take four to five weeks, said Ernie Sota, president of Sota Construction.

"As areas are abated, we will come right in to begin the mechanical work," he said.

The Lofts on Mount Washington will reactivate 120,000 of the building's 130,000 square feet with residential units in 16 styles, a grand auditorium entrance, a fitness club in one of the gyms, a theater that can be rented for productions and a rooftop deck. A large sunken courtyard will be redesigned and landscaped.

The market-rate apartments will range from 800 to 2,000 square feet.

The Mount Washington Community Development Corp. bought the building for $150,000 after the school was vacated in 2006. Two schools in one H-shaped building constructed in 1933 and 1941 served K-5 in one part and 6-8 in the other before they were closed.

The nonprofit completed the sale two weeks ago to a.m. Rodriguez Associates, whose principal, Victor Rodriguez, estimated the renovation will cost $14 million. The project is benefitting from a 20 percent historic tax credit because the building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mr. Rodriguez has renovated several schools into residences, including South Hills High School in 2011 and Harding Court Junior High in Carnegie in 1994. The Carnegie renovation was the first project he undertook with Sota Construction Services and Green Development. Sota is the construction contractor at Prospect.

"The building was in very good condition," Mr. Sota said. "The roof was always maintained. We're able to reuse a lot of interior features," including the terrazzo flooring, many doors and "tremendous Art Deco detailing."

Mr. Rodriguez said he must be getting a reputation for taking on schools "because the Urban Redevelopment Authority wants me to do more of them."

The fact that old schools were built like fortresses and have large windows, wide halls and great space for amenities and socializing make them ideal as lofts, apartments and condos. The cost of this transition makes it less competitive than other development sites, but there's more than cost that's daunting.

Prospect School has a lot of space that isn't residential and some that isn't reusable. A new building of 67 units would not be built to that scale, Mr. Rodriguez said. A new building also has no surprises.

Undertaking the renovation of a massive building "requires a great architect and a contractor who can do early forensics, peeling back the layers so there are no surprises," Mr. Rodriguez said.

Paul Rodriguez, the architect, is based in California and is a member of Victor Rodriguez's family.

Other than the asbestos, which was expected, and some water damage in the theater ceiling near the walls, the building doesn't need much remediation or repair, said Wayne Yancec, the construction superintendent.

On each side of the theater stage, iron or stainless steel panels that cover vertical heating vents are cut out with elegant sculptures of birds. Panels of butterflies are inset above the theater entrance. Because it was two schools, the building has two gymnasiums, one of which will become lofts, the other the fitness center.

It also has two parking lots.

When the Mount Washington Community Development Corp. took the property on, neighborhood residents weighed in.

"The concern was who's going to come in and what will it look like." said Jason Kambitsis, the nonprofit's executive director. "When you have a good developer the concern goes away, and historic tax credits add a whole level of comfort that the building will look the same on the outside. I think people are excited about it. We don't want to see a vacant building sitting there, and we're excited to have more new blood coming to Mount Washington."

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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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