Walkabout: Neighborhoods get big boost from reuse of vacant buildings
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When educators close schools and congregations leave churches, the rest of us are stuck with what can become big eyesores and the challenge of reusing them.
This is not a commentary against the people who make these decisions. They're hard decisions and sometimes inevitable. But schools and churches are such pillars of a neighborhood's sense of place that they cannot sit empty for long without leaving a huge suggestion of failure and taking a toll on our landscape as well as our collective psyche.
While Fourth River Development is working on a plan to evaluate the marketability of 20 closed public schools in the city, the neighborhoods of many more former schools have no such advocacy to get that value back.
Some developers have taken the big plunge. The Fifth Avenue High School apartments, Uptown, comes immediately to mind as a shining example of reuse after many forlorn decades.
Lawrenceville is a step closer to seeing the former Holy Family Roman Catholic Church, school and parish house on 44th Street come back to life.
A proposed reuse by E Properties and Development has gotten approval from the Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment to renovate the buildings into 57 market-rate apartments. An additional parking deck will allow for 88 cars, far more than the city's guidelines require.
E Properties' CEO Emeka Onwugbenu estimated the renovation cost at about $10.5 million. He said his rents would be from about $1,000 a month for a one-bedroom to $3,000 for a two-story apartment. His company would own the property and hire a professional company to manage it.
The property has been vacant for several years.
In making its decision, the zoning board had only to consider the proposed reuse -- from institutional to residential -- and the distance between the sidewalk and a parking deck.
There was opposition from several nearby residents who worry about living among rental units, their added density and the possibility of increased traffic. Some people voiced their fears that, in the long term, the property could become low-income housing, even though that is greatly needed in the city.
Representatives of Lawrenceville United, the Lawrenceville Corp., the Lawrenceville Stakeholders and about a dozen individuals spoke in favor of the project at the zoning hearing in the fall.
On the notice that was mailed to everyone who signed in the day of that zoning hearing, my name got tacked onto the end of the list of names "in favor," but that was the board's error. As a reporter, I am always an observer.
Nevertheless, the reuse of schools -- and churches -- makes me happy as a lover of the urban landscape. Both present challenges and demand tons of money, even if they aren't in terrible condition.
In covering stories in neighborhoods over the years, I have been struck by the vibe of sadness an empty school gives off, especially in a neighborhood that doesn't have a lot of other amenities.
The stark silence of a playground evokes the ghost sounds of hundreds of kids squealing and laughing at recess, and that contrast says a lot about the health of a neighborhood.
The reuse of schools as something else -- apartments, artists' studios, cooperatives, co-working areas or even retail -- can go a long way toward re-energizing neighborhoods that may feel as if they failed to keep their appeal.
They didn't fail; they were forsaken.
Now there's hope that the city will begin to repopulate, maybe not to 1950s standards but enough to breathe life into neighborhoods that need to recapture their sense of place.
If that were to happen, schools might be able to be schools again. It would be sweet to see a neighborhood such as Hazelwood take off on a growth spurt that resurrects the use of at least one of its shuttered schools. It would be sweet to hear once again children during recess at Mann Elementary in Marshall-Shadeland.
If Pittsburgh's modest growth in the most recent census estimates is any indication, we will continue to get younger as a city, and if we're lucky, that will mean more demand for schools -- and apartments.
We have enough empty buildings to accommodate all of them.
First Published January 22, 2013 12:00 am