The Great Real Estate Debate
Property values - and how they make people feel - are at the heart of Clybourne Park and on the minds of people in Pittsburgh.
Plays express how people feel. The subject of a play is the vehicle a writer uses to get to those emotions. Topics that usually lead to strong feelings are romance, family, and war. In Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris has created a different situation that’s almost guaranteed to stir people up. That’s because this Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winner looks at something almost everyone is talking about: Property values.
Pittsburgh, a city reeling from real estate tax reassessments, is ripe to appreciate Clybourne Park and its look at white flight and gentrification.
The term gentrification is sometimes misunderstood, with people thinking it just means fixing-up an old place. But gentrification can have more insidious consequences.
Take Pittsburgh’s South Side for example. House flippers have come in and converted 100-year old mill workers’ homes into rental properties for students and young professionals. The result is a new neighborhood composition, changing it from an area of families to a sort of fraternity row that has attracted businesses such as bars and pizza shops rather than markets and hardware stores. In turn, increased property values have led to higher taxes, which can drive the old-timers out of their homes. It’s a concept known as “economic eviction.”
Strip District Redevelopment Plan
This $400 million project is being planned by the Buncher Company, a local commercial real estate development firm. It calls for 750 apartments and 800,000 square feet of office and retail space to be built between 11th and 21st streets in the Strip District on land that is primarily used for parking. Opponents say the vastness of the project could ruin the character of the Strip District.
According to the Buncher blueprint, one-third of the Pittsburgh Produce Terminal would be torn down. Eliminating this portion of the fruit and vegetable wholesaler’s building would allow a connection between Smallman Street and the Allegheny River through a piece of the new development to be called “a piazza.” The Pittsburgh Public Market which has been housed in the Terminal for three years, will move this summer to Penn Avenue. Some critics believe the Produce Terminal is historically significant and should be preserved. Others want to guarantee that public access to the riverfront is part of the plan.
Hazelwood’s Almono Development
Even bigger is the development proposed for the former steel mill site in Hazelwood. Projected to cost $900 million, the plan includes 1,300 residential units, offices, light industrial manufacturing, and high-tech research facilities on 178 acres along the Monongahela River. (The name Almono nods to Pittsburgh’s three rivers - the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio.)
The concern here is not to repeat the mistakes that were made at The Waterfront, which never integrated the Homestead community with the development and didn’t make the most of its riverfront location.
Almono’s goal is to connect the development to the neighborhood and the neighborhood to the river. Currently the non-profit RIDC is managing the project with Rothschild Doyno Collaborative as the planning firm. The land is owned by four local foundations: the Benedum, McCune and RK Mellon Foundations, and the Heinz Endowments. A tax increment financing deal that is almost in place would allow infrastructure work to begin on the site.
It’s not just billion dollar projects that cause controversy. Take for example a forlorn little duplex on Foreland Street in the Deutschtown section of the North Side. The owner of the property wants to tear it down because its condition makes renovation prohibitively expensive. A new house would be built on the lot. But since the buildings may be the oldest housing stock in the North Side, dating back to before the Civil War, some East Allegheny Community Council members are hoping that the houses can be saved.
Because the area is an historic district, both sides recently came before the city’s Historic Review Commission to plead their cases. No decision was made and the owner gave preservationists 90 days to find a buyer who has the vision and means to turn these antique houses from hovels to habitable.
City of Asylum & the Garden Theater Block
People have been talking about the re-development of the area around the Garden Theater, a former adult movie house, for what seems like decades. Progress was made recently when the City of Asylum said it would open a book shop and cafe on West North Avenue in the North Side’s Garden Theater block.
But according to some varied comments after a story about the announcement on the Post-Gazette’s web site, not everyone is happy with the choice.
One commenter said a box store will further “Yuppify” the neighborhood while another retorted that Yuppies no longer use book stores, they do their reading online. Another said that a cafe will compete with the nearby Crazy Mocha while someone else commented that literary events should take place at a library.
The City of Asylum, a non-profit group that supports writers who are persecuted in their native countries, will call their venue Alphabet City. In addition to selling books and coffee, the storefront will function as a community center and plans include hosting readings, performances, workshops and classes. They hope to be open this time next year. Maybe one of their first events could be a debate on real estate development.
Do you have something to add to the great real estate debate? Leave a comment below or on our Facebook.