Square Deal | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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Square Deal 

click to enlarge Artist rendering of proposed development at Doughboy Square - COURTESY OF OCTOBER DEVELOPMENT
  • Courtesy of October Development
  • Artist rendering of proposed development at Doughboy Square

Much of the time, the statue that gave Doughboy Square its name -- a soldier from the First World War -- stands guard over an empty square. But when Al DePasquale looks at the intersection of Penn and Butler streets, in Lawrenceville, he envisions a piazza full of activity day and night. 

Despite its location on Lawrenceville's doorstep, the square has suffered neglect for years. Vacant lots and shuttered properties mix with freshly rehabbed facades along the corridor between 33rd and 35th streets. That's where DePasquale, co-owner of North Side-based October Development, plans to transform the area into a mixture of housing, retail and office spaces.

He estimates his vision will cost $30 million to complete, with the first phase breaking ground in the fall. But he has obtained critical financing already, and October currently has options to close on a former gas station, currently the Wheel Emporium, and properties flanking the Roberto Clemente Museum, in the 3300 block of Penn. Those are critical parcels for developing the square, says Rob Stephany, executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. 

"Given the loss Doughboy has seen, it's hard for individual investors to make a single investment without knowing how that single investment nests itself into the larger project," he says.

DePasquale hopes to acquire several parcels in the area owned by the URA, along with  others held by the Lawrenceville Corp. No agreement for the URA land has been reached yet, but Stephany says progress is being made.

"The building is easy," DePasquale says, and the project is well on the way to putting together the financing and property needed to get things started. "We just need to come to an agreement with the people of Lawrenceville to develop a design."

But that might not be simple.

 

DePasquale was brought in by the community group Lawrenceville United last year to see what he could do around Doughboy. The contractor introduced himself to the community in early February, when he unveiled preliminary sketches of 11 projects he plans to undertake in the area. First up: a row of townhomes in the 3400 block of Butler, across from the statue, and a three-story office with retail at the site of Wheel Emporium.

At the February meeting, community members peppered DePasquale with questions about his plans, particularly their consistency with development studies already completed for the area. Concerns ranged from the early sketches looking like a "suburban mall" to rushing the design process and excluding public input.

DePasquale cautions that it's early in the process; he's only just begun working with the Lawrenceville planning team made up of members from various community groups. But he acknowledges that reaching a consensus on a design is holding up the process: "We're all under an agreement that we want something fantastic for that gateway. We just don't know the theme yet."

Maureen Ford, executive director of the neighborhood's development organization, Lawrenceville Corp., says her role is to help with public input. The URA awarded the LC a grant of $100,000 to help pay for the early stages of community projects "with hopes it'd start in Doughboy," says the URA's Stephany.

Ford believes DePasquale's proposed development will have an impact well beyond the square itself. "Doughboy Square is a major entrance to Lawrenceville," she says. "Not only does it get rid of blight and dilapidated buildings, but it starts to raise everyone's property values as the development occurs."

Even so, design isn't the only issue; property acquisition also stands in the way. According to maps of the development, DePasquale needs nearly three dozen parcels to complete his plans, and not all of them are owned by allies like the URA. (Among the properties to be purchased are three parcels on the 3400 block of Butler owned by Carlotta Burgess, wife of District 9 City Councilor Ricky Burgess. Burgess said he has "nothing to do with the properties," and referred questions to his wife, who could not be reached for comment.) 

 Such acquisitions of private property are crucial, development supporters say, so there aren't "missing teeth" in the areas where DePasquale plans to work.

Lauren Byrne, executive director at LU, says she hopes that owners of shuttered properties will be "good neighbors" and consider working with developers: "A blighted, vacant lot is a detriment. It's imperative that we are cleaning this space up."

 

City Councilor Patrick Dowd believes the February meeting was "critical" for the public. "I think the public gets it right all the time," Dowd says. "It may not be the most efficient way or the cleanest way, but I think [public input is] what's going to make it great."

While DePasquale says he's open to working with the community, some are approaching cautiously. Sarah Kroloff, a representative of the Lawrenceville Stakeholders group, says that DePasquale "came in out of thin air."

"There is concern the project is being rushed through," Kroloff contends. While DePasquale has been meeting with community groups, there's only been one public discussion of the proposal. "After having decades of vacant lots, why rush it right now?" 

At the February meeting, at least two residents questioned DePasquale's qualifications. One of them, Emilie Cohen, who owns a framing studio at 3353 Ligonier, has taken DePasquale to court after renovations he undertook for her on two buildings in 2005. 

Cohen claimed DePasquale left much for her to finish or correct on her own, like putting in foundation beams in the basement. But her two lawsuits were dismissed after Cohen's attorney missed a filing deadline. 

DePasquale says his work for Cohen was among his earliest projects, but says, "I'm very proud of the job I did up there. ... At the level of development we're doing, I don't question my credentials. We're qualified." Cohen herself says she takes some of the blame for a project she says went on without written contracts. She says she just wants the community to proceed more cautiously, a feeling echoed by those who believe in the potential of the Doughboy area and want to ensure something of quality is developed.

"Buildings last a long time," says Kroloff. "We don't want to be stuck with an eyesore."

DePasquale has impressed state Sen. Jim Ferlo and others with a renovation project involving townhomes in the North Side's Deutschtown neighborhood. Ferlo, who represents Lawrenceville, believes the new project is "a step in the right direction" for the area. 

And development of the Doughboy corridor has been a priority. Already the architectural firm of Desmone & Associates has saved the historic Pennsylvania National Bank building that sits behind the Doughboy; community leaders say DePasquale's project can build from that momentum. 

"What's happening in Doughboy," says Dowd, "isn't happening in a vacuum."

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