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Building Dispute 

click to enlarge A dispute between a property owner and artists like Johnross, above, may sink plans to turn Sheraden into an artist's colony. - BRIAN KALDORF
  • Brian Kaldorf
  • A dispute between a property owner and artists like Johnross, above, may sink plans to turn Sheraden into an artist's colony.

Just a few years ago, the sprawling former warehouse complex on 60 Greenway Drive was little more than a haven for drug users and prostitutes, who often left piles of syringes for its Sheraden neighbors to find.

Now, some of those same neighbors are worried an effort to turn it into artist housing is falling apart, as tenants and the landowner argue over who's to blame. And the dispute may portend a larger fracturing among the community's leaders.

The warehouse complex -- composed of 60 Greenway Dr. and 2637 Chartiers Ave. -- was once the site of Ferro Corporation's chemical manufacturing plant. After Ferro moved out, the buildings stood empty for a number of years, until S.M. "Sandy" Stevenson and his company Dysan Development LLC found them. 

Controversy, though, has surrounded the property since Stevenson's Dysan Development acquired it. At the time, Stevenson says he was looking for warehouse space for his construction equipment and materials. The buildings were listed at $400,000, he says, and had been vacant for three years.

"When I toured the property ... it was apparent that the buildings were vandalized over the years, there was extensive water damage and evidence of squatters and drug addicts living in the building," Stevenson says. He estimated renovation costs at $500,000 -- "not worth the asking price."

Meanwhile, Stevenson says the West Pittsburgh Partnership, where he was a board member, was in need of cash. So he urged Ferro to donate the property to WPP, as a tax write-off. At the same time, he agreed to purchase it from WPP for $25,000 down, with the WPP holding a mortgage for $75,000 plus interest until he could finance the project. On March 30, 2007, according to Stevenson, Dysan paid the balance of $75,000 and has been making monthly payments for the interest, the balance of which is $2,625. 

The move, however, irked some in the community, who believed it was a conflict of interest, and that the residents should have had a chance to purchase the buildings. But the WPP told City Paper at the time that no one stepped up to buy it, and they couldn't sell it without an interested buyer.

 

Stevenson abandoned the idea of using the space for storage and offices when he was approached by a group of artists. They "spoke of having art classes for the area children, having art exhibits," Stevenson says. "I thought ... it was a great idea."

He agreed to rent to them, starting with Johnross, an Ohio native who had formerly operated an artist space known as The Meter Room in New York City and who came to Pittsburgh around 2001. His studios were once in Uptown, where he paid $1,200 monthly rent for 5,000 square feet. The warehouse was 15,000 square feet, and rent was only $1,700 a month. Johnross moved in under a five-year lease in 2006.

The artist says he and Stevenson made a verbal agreement that he would bring in other artists to the community and Stevenson would work with them to customize their spaces across the street, with the idea to ultimately make the properties a "hub where art people could come on this side of town."

And it worked, at least at first. 

Between 2006 and 2009, six other artists moved in. Maria Leon and her husband, Luke Andrade, were among the first in 2006, moving their production company Brickwall Productions into the space, then later taking a living space in 2007. Accountant Amy Peek then moved in along with Fred and Shelby Vogel, who operated a horror-film company, ToeTag Inc. (They, too, rented living space.) Artist Brad Bianchi moved into the space last year.

Neighborhood leaders say the drug-ridden corner turned around into a friendly site. 

"Now it's like your home," says city Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith. "You feel welcome there." 

Owen and Sue Hahn have also rented commercial space there for their second-hand goods store, for about six years. A storage company, roofer and Stevenson himself also occupy some space in the property.

The artists say the lower rent reflected the state of the property, which came "as-is," according to Stevenson. Dysan would provide the basics -- starter kitchen, bathroom and heating, and the tenants would be responsible for other improvements, Stevenson said. The artists believed they would eventually rent to own the space, which "was part of the draw," Johnross says.

Stevenson "seemed very credible," observes Leon. "And the spaces weren't too good to be true. They were very rough." Which allowed the artists to put their personal touch on them. 

But the tenants maintain they got less than they bargained for, and their landlord failed to fix issues just to make the space habitable, like leaking ceilings, exposed wiring, shoddy or incomplete duct work and heating units not appropriate for the space. 

Both the artists and Stevenson agree their relationship soured in September, when Peek, a resident, put her rent in escrow. Peek contends Stevenson hadn't completed promised work in her space. Stevenson argues otherwise. Peek later moved out, relocating her accounting business to Mount Oliver. "This essentially crippled me," she says.

It also led, according to Johnross, to an invoice from Dysan for approximately $24,000. Stevenson claims some of that money is for back rent and for work completed on his property. Johnross argues otherwise.

 The rest of the artists began to put their money in escrow, to show they had money "in good faith." But they would not pay until certain items were fixed. And as of press time, the Vogels, Andrade and Leon, Peek, and Bianchi had moved out. Johnross planned to move to studios in Brentwood. 

Soon, Johnross says the other tenants followed Peek's cue, and placed their rent into escrow because, they say, Stevenson was not fulfilling his obligations. 

"He's not getting another dime from any of us."

 

But Stevenson contends some of those tenants haven't fulfilled their obligations, like paying rent or utility bills, and that he did not overcharge any of the tenants for work done. "There was no mark-up or profit," he says.

Stevenson also has to contend with city code. In trying to renovate the buildings, Stevenson has to satisfy two different city offices: zoning, which regulates how a property is used, and the Bureau of Building Inspection, which regulates how it's built.

The properties at Greenway and Chartiers are zoned "urban industrial," which allows retail and commercial use. Stevenson applied for a use called "cultural services," which allows the space to be used as an artist studio, for example. 

The approval for that use is a two-step process from the zoning office. Stevenson has to meet certain conditions before permission will be granted. As of Oct. 14, the zoning board extended his time to meet the conditions until June 2011. That also means, according to zoning administrator Susan Tymoczko, he has until June 2011 to meet occupancy requirements as well. 

But the lack of occupancy is one thing the artists cite as a main point of contention, noting that the buildings are not up to code. 

According to BBI chief John Jennings, Stevenson applied for the occupancy permit on May 21, 2007. "Obviously it was never issued or signed off on because the building wasn't code compliant," he says.

Stevenson applied for a building permit in June 2009, and BBI gave him a one-year grace period to bring his properties into compliance for the occupancy permit. When BBI inspectors returned to the property in September -- at the request of city Councilor Kail-Smith and the artists, Jennings said none of the work was completed.

"The people were living there in very unsafe conditions," Jennings says. BBI cited Stevenson for fire-code violations and lack of occupancy, and ordered the buildings to be vacated. Furthermore, he points out, the residents shouldn't have been living there without the permits.

And according to Jennings, building-code violations are enforceable regardless of the zoning office's deliberations. "We are dealing [with] life-safety issues," he wrote in a follow-up e-mail. 

As of Oct. 31, the residents and the Hahns said they had not received any order to vacate the properties. Stevenson says he didn't bother sending the artists letters because he assumed they were moving out. As for the rest of the tenants, like the Hahns, he says, "I don't believe I have to put them out." 

Regarding the occupancy permits, Stevenson says he had them from the previous owners for his original intent of the building: warehouse and contractor storage. And he maintains that he's doing everything he can to bring the building into compliance and obtain occupancy. 

"I have done nothing illegal and nothing wrong," he says. "I may have been remiss in doing something in exact timing, but it's not a fatal error."

With the artists moving out, Stevenson says he may consider other artists "with a more sustainable base" or return to his original contractor/warehouse concept.

"It would have been more profitable," he acknowledges.

 

Whatever the property's fate, the current dispute is happening against a broader backdrop of uncertainty. In September, Stevenson stepped down from the board of WPP, citing that he disagreed with the current leadership of Lou Bucci, the board's president.

The WPP also agreed to a forensic audit of its financial transactions and deliberations -- like the one in which Stevenson acquired the Ferro properties. The audit, conducted by a committee of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the Forbes Fund, Kail-Smith's office and the residents, is due back later this week or early next week, according to Kail-Smith's office. Kail-Smith said it would be "inappropriate" to comment on it since it was not yet public. 

WPP executive director Dru Simeone did not return calls seeking comment, and board president Lou Bucci could not be reached. 

Stevenson, meanwhile, says he will likely take legal action against the tenants for back rent. The artists have since split up looking for new places to work. 

And tenants like the Hahns are just waiting to see what happens. If he's forced to vacate, Owen Hahn says he'll sell everything off and bring in an auctioneer.

"I'll sell as low I can and get out," the 65-year-old says. "It's too much to move."

Kail-Smith, meanwhile, wants to keep the artists in Sheraden.

"I see no reason we can't work this out," she says. "We don't want them to just remain here. We want them to bring more artists here. We want to be a community that has open arms."

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