When groundbreaking takes place on Nov. 20 on one of several vacant lots bordering the Central North Side thoroughfare of Federal Street, it'll be the first stirring of earth on this seemingly forsaken stretch in nearly 10 years.
Where once the weeds were waist-high and boarded-up buildings dominated the landscape, townhouses with rooftop decks will soon fill the vacant lots.
For some, this long-awaited development is a harbinger of better things to come. But others fear the specter of gentrification in these humbler parts of the neighborhood. Many residents say they won't be able to afford the new homes being built nearby.
Pat Murphy, an 18-year resident of the Mexican War Streets and several blocks from the new development, runs Cornerstones for Development, which focuses on community organizing and development projects. "I moved to where there's a range of people of different races and classes, but now I found myself in a neighborhood that seems to be really gentrifying, and that concerns me," Murphy says. "The mixed flavor I like is on the way out. The problem is, people with lower income aren't seen as valuable assets in the community."
Ronell Guy agrees. She is a life-long North Sider and director of education and outreach for the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, which advocates for affordable housing. "It's a very slow and deliberate process of gentrification -- and very successful," says Guy. The new housing "is not about improving the quality of life of the existing people," she says. "It's about changing the makeup of the neighborhood."
Janet Holtz, a board member of the Central Northside Neighborhood Council, the community group that is developing the housing, says she understands the dilemma: The neighborhood sorely needs to attract new investments, but without sacrificing its long-time residents.
"People who grew up here can't afford to live here" on the North Side, Holtz says. "It's getting very difficult." But, she adds, "We really need to get something over there, and it needs something that looks good."
Federal Street's last hope for a major development was an office and retail complex begun by Allegheny General Hospital about a decade ago on Federal and Jacksonia streets. Due to the hospital's financial troubles, the project was only completed in 2003. Since then, the flashing candy-red neon sign of the X-rated Garden Theater has hung on the Federal and North streets corridor like an albatross. As city officials have been fighting a legal battle to condemn the theater for the past several years, dilapidation and demolition continue to rule the day.
But that soon will change. The Central Northside Neighborhood Council, acting as the neighborhood's community development corporation, is forging ahead with a development of 60 three-bedroom townhouses. Such new construction is long overdue for the community, say the council's members and some residents.
"The neighborhood [decided] it wasn't going to wait" for the Garden Theater to disappear, says the council's community development specialist, Rebecca Davidson-Wagner.
With a $1.8 million grant from the state, and more than $1.5 million from the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority, which helped acquire the land, the council will embark on the development's first phase: 22 units, to be completed by next summer. The council plans to take out as much as $8 million in loans to finance construction.
This will be the council's first foray into market-rate and upscale family-dwelling development. Its past endeavors mostly involved subsidized housing for seniors: Arch Court, on the 1300 block of Arch Street, and West Park Court, at the intersection of Brighton Road and West North Avenue.
With prices ranging from $120,000 to a little above $200,000, the townhouses are priced four to seven times the median assessment of existing homes nearby of comparable size. Some neighbors wonder just who will pay that kind of money.
"It sounds stupid to me," says Norma Jean Humphreys Hunt, who lives on Alpine Street, a few blocks from the new development. "The people won't be able to afford these houses."
Indeed, there is some question of how quickly the housing will sell. The East Allegheny Resident Council has been renovating historic row houses on nearby streets, pricing them between $170,000 and just above $200,000. Four of the last six renovated homes are still on the market after two years.
Then again, property prices are soaring in the nearby Mexican War Streets, a few blocks away on the other side of Federal. Indeed, the most expensive style of house the council is building -- a three-bedroom corner townhouse complete with a rooftop deck -- is called the "Palo Alto," after one of the War Streets.
In 2003 the council's board, then dominated by War Streets residents, applied to the city's planning commission to declare as blighted a 10-block area surrounding the Federal North project. Bounded by Arch Street, Stiles Way, Saturn Way, Jacksonia Street and Butterfield Way, it includes 316 properties.
Some residents affected by the blight declaration, which allows the city to take properties by eminent domain, weren't notified by the council about the declaration. But the city approved it over protests by Hunt -- whose expansive, deep-rooted North Side clan still owns several properties in the blight zone -- and other residents, as was documented in the press at the time.
Since then, many residents have received assurance from the URA that their properties won't be seized. Despite that, and the fact that the council's board now includes members who live in the affected area, distrust from long-time residents lingers.
"They're making [the houses] for themselves," says Hunt of the council.
Not so, counter some board members, although they made no bones about using the upscale housing to attract newcomers and turn around the long-declining thoroughfare.
"It's a result of a neighborhood consensus," says the council's vice president, Dave Demko. "We certainly want new people in the neighborhood. It's going to change the nature of the neighborhood."
For Irene Karavolos, no change could make the neighborhood worse than what she's already endured. Karavolos and her sister, Fanny Kostos, run Steve's New York Hot Dog Shop on Federal Street, as their family has for more than 50 years. The sisters, born-and-bred North Siders, now live in the North Hills.
"This part of Federal Street is ignored" by the city and developers, Karavolos says. "There is no reason for nothing to happen here."
The sisters say they have to walk past panhandlers and drug-dealers to get to work. The shop's window still looks out at a boarded-up storefront. But now they feel buoyed by the news that developments are coming. Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is considering relocating its damaged North Side branch to Federal Street, one block south of the new housing. And Franco Harris, former Steelers running back and a North Side resident, recently bought the shuttered Park View Café at the corner of Federal Street and West North Avenue, with plans to reopen it as a Mediterranean-themed restaurant.
Though she's not looking to buy a house, Karavolos says the two young people who work in her kitchen, neighborhood dwellers both, will not be able to afford the new housing. Even so, she says, "Anything that happens here is going to be good for everybody."
Rebecca Davidson-Wagner says the Central Northside council is working with the URA to offer financing to moderate-income homebuyers. A family of four with income under $63,650 may qualify for a second mortgage from the city for up to $50,000 to defray the purchase cost, but homeowners will have to pay back the mortgage if they move or sell.
"We're trying to maintain the mix of the neighborhood in this development," says Davidson-Wagner.
Holtz, who used to run a homeless shelter on nearby Brighton Road, says she knows the importance of providing homes that neighborhood residents can afford. Her son, who works at AGH, won't be able to afford one of those new homes, she says, but adds, "We have to keep looking at what we're doing and assessing what's affordable."
That remains "a dilemma all communities face," says Murphy of Cornerstones. "They want to provide the housing the community needs, but they also ask, 'What can we do to bring more higher-income people?' How do you manage to maintain opportunities for a wide range of people? It's tough. What it takes is for community groups willing to sit down, discuss the issues and make a commitment to all the people, in addition to looking at who else you want to attract in. You can't do stuff to the exclusion of the people in the neighborhood."