New value seen in remodeled East Liberty
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We're entering the ugliest building on this stretch of Black Street. Just ask the new owner who paid 160 grand for it.
"Buy the ugliest thing on the block" -- that's been the mantra of East Liberty Development Inc. for a decade, and 5522 Black St. passes that test with fading colors. To call the century-old, three-story apartment building slapdash would be an insult to slapdashers everywhere. The vestibule has the curb appeal of a bus shelter for the Hades Flyer, and a seemingly blind remuddler threw up some shingles where window boxes once hung.
This is exactly the kind of place where Eric Jester, project director of the nonprofit development group, spends a lot of time saying, "We'll take it."
Home Depot, Whole Foods, Target, Bakery Square -- those high-profile destinations in and around East Liberty are generally seen as sparking the neighborhood's renaissance. Yet what has been happening on the back streets in the past few years is, in some ways, even more impressive.
Mr. Jester, 31, who grew up in the Mon Valley, freely admits he doesn't always play well with others. But in the decade East Liberty Development has been at this, he and his colleagues have gone from looking like naive do-gooders to whip-smart developers. All one has to do is look at the home prices.
Back when Mr. Jester joined the development group in 2003, it had already ditched an "if you build it they will come" strategy that failed. Ten new houses had been built on Mellon Street in 2001, and none sold. Abandoned and rundown homes surrounding the development scared buyers away.
His co-worker, Kendall Pelling -- whom Mr. Jester terms a "brilliant eccentric" -- came up with a new plan: Just buy everything.
"If we didn't like it," Mr. Jester said, "we bought it. We poisoned the rats, we boarded the windows, we towed the vehicles off of our lots. We cut the grass, we evicted the tenants, we hired off-duty cops to walk through our properties."
The turnaround didn't come overnight. As late as 2006, when Mr. Jester and his wife bought a Victorian house on Mellon Street for $46,900, nearly everyone thought he was nuts. Soon enough, he did, too. He made so many 911 calls and saw so much police tape on his walks to work, he bought a large ugly dog.
Walking the neighborhood streets today is a different story. Crime is down. Property values are soaring. By now, ELDI has acquired almost a fifth of the neighborhood parcels, recycling better than half of them through sales and rentals. A check of homes on North Euclid Street tells some of that story: a $274,000 sale in 2009; sales of $240,000, $270,000 and $332,000 in 2011; a $250,000 sale in 2012.
Mr. Jester knows most of the owners, as only a man who has spent almost every waking hour obsessing over an eight-block area can. He points out one house that belongs to a couple who moved here from San Francisco for a job with Google, and another that's the home of a Shadyside restaurateur.
It's not all high-end property. The four-unit building on Black Street will be gutted and used for subsidized rentals. Those are mixed in and made to "look and feel like a market-rate building," Mr. Jester said as we left an apartment where a ton of junk had been left behind, "because people shouldn't have to live like this.
"People in East Liberty get it," he said. It has plenty of subsidized housing already. They don't much mind as long as it's done better.
When we were looking through a battered row house a couple of blocks from Euclid, Kim McCray, who moved to the neighborhood just two months ago, pointed across the street to a freshly painted home and complimented ELDI "for doing wonders with that house right there." The neighborhood, she said, "is coming along."
Mr. Jester hates the term "neighborhood pioneer" because that's insulting to longtime residents who have done all they could to prop up this neighborhood for decades.
"Community is a level playing field that isn't transacted in dollars or connections. It's a gradual change that happens to all us lucky enough to live in East Liberty."
Fair enough, but it doesn't hurt when do-gooders know what they're doing.
First Published October 4, 2012 12:00 am