Block Party | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Sarah Landini stands amid concrete slabs in the middle of an empty field on the corner of Collins Avenue and East Liberty Boulevard, where until two years ago perched derelict and empty houses and an abandoned bar. 

Landini, who has rented one of the five Collins rowhouses next door for the past three years, says that some of the houses that once sat here "were not livable, but they were being lived in. It was so sad."

 But she and her neighbors are not happy with what might go up in their place. East Liberty Development Inc., whose community work is often held up as an example by other neighborhood groups, is facing unaccustomed opposition to its plans. 

Landini recalls celebrating two years ago as the site was demolished and a market-rate townhouse development was announced. Then, this June, she and her neighbors received notice that the developer was seeking a zoning change to accommodate a new scheme: a three-story apartment building housing an estimated 27 people -- almost twice what the site had held prior to demolition.

"A bunch of us got kind of in a tizzy about that, because it was different than we had been told," Landini recalls. They met at the zoning hearing -- which was postponed -- and organized while sharing a car ride back.

More than specific issues of parking, sewerage, lighting, safety or "just adding that many people to a block" of 100-year-old single-family homes, says Landini, "it's a matter of trust."

David Baily, who lives on Sheridan Avenue, at the proposed development's rear, helped form SHECONA -- Sheridan-Collins Neighborhood Association -- to oppose the change. "ELDI has put a bunch of money into obtaining that corner of property, and as a result they feel limited by what they can do" to recoup their costs while not crowding the corner with a large number of housing units, he contends. 

Mark Child, also of Sheridan, charges that ELDI should have sought input from residents of the surrounding block for any design changes. "They have merely lifted one of their standard apartment blocks from their [nearby] Liberty Park [development] and found that suits their numbers for the site" at Collins, Child believes. Liberty Park opened several years ago with 124 rental units, 84 of which are subsidized housing. 

"I didn't have enough experience to know that [the original Collins site proposal] was a total pipe dream," admits ELDI Project Manager Kendall Pelling. Construction costs would be too high now to create salable townhouses there, he says.

 He doesn't believe ELDI's purchasing costs skewed the development's eventual shape. The 11 properties cost $155,000 to purchase, while demolition added about $80,000, Pelling reports. There were several outstanding utility bills -- including a sewer bill of $50,000 that ELDI is trying to negotiate down -- as well interest on their financing, taxes and property maintenance, he adds. "The site costs what it costs, if you want to eliminate the horribleness that was there," he says.

Still, he wishes ELDI's real-estate committee had reached out to residents of the blocks next to the project. "We should have engaged them in advance," he says. 

The fuss by SHECONA members has apparently had an impact. On Aug. 13 -- a week before the upcoming zoning hearing -- local site-developer McCormack Baron Salazar e-mailed residents to schedule a meeting to discuss "a lower density alternative plan for the site." Such a meeting hadn't happened by press time. But Pelling says Collins townhouses may be possible once again. 

"There's a good chance that this new scheme is something everybody is going to be excited about," he says.

SHECONA members had been planning to oppose ELDI's zoning-change request. Asked whether she'd object if ELDI's plans put townhouses back on Collins, Landini, replied "No way. We'd have a party." 

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