July 16, 2013 | Vol. 73 No. 51

Housing strategy could bring change to the Hilltop

It sure was a hot and humid one in Pittsburgh last week. But the sweltering heat didn’t hold concerned citizens back on Thursday night, when more than two dozen people convened at the Warrington Recreation Center to plan for the future of the neighborhoods they call home.

Allentown residents talk about the strengths and weaknesses of their neighborhood as part of a study to help determine a housing strategy for the neighborhood.

The July 11 meeting called together Allentown and Beltzhoover residents and community liaisons for a presentation and workshop to discuss current neighborhood conditions and project goals for the Allentown and Beltzhoover Housing Strategy project, a comprehensive, five-year plan which uses several resources to revitalize neighborhood residential properties and keep local land in local hands.

The project is funded by the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Renaissance Fund with support from the Mayor’s Office, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Department of City Planning. It is administered by the Design Center through its Design Fund Program and facilitated by the Hilltop Alliance’s Housing Plan Committee, which recently selected Fourth Economy and Maynes Associates Architects, LLC as project consultants.

Research and development for the project officially began earlier this summer, when key players stepped out of the conference room and hit the streets to tour Allentown and Beltzhoover in order to assess current neighborhood conditions and determine potential areas for improvement and/or development.

Part presentation, part break-out workshop session, the meeting on Thursday evening gave the team a chance to present the findings from its tours to the community and solicit further feedback from those in attendance.

But, before any of that happened, Hilltop Alliance Executive Director Aaron Sukenik spoke to an alarming trend in the South Hills region.

In his opening comments, Mr. Sukenik said the project aimed to revitalize and renovate residential housing in the area not only for the purposes of urban redevelopment and improved living but also to thwart the threat of blind “land banking” by rogue investors.

Describing what has taken place in other nearby Hilltop communities, Mr. Sukenik said these rogue investors buy up all the vacant/neglected property in a struggling neighborhood, flip it, and market it vaguely as “Pittsburgh property” to foreign, out-of-country investors, who buy it sight unseen for incredible markups.

Mr. Sukenik said these practices usually result in the original investors managing the properties for the foreign owners, oftentimes resulting in negligent property upkeep or poor tenant screening—some of the very things a neighborhood wants to move away from, not toward.

Preventing the spread of this trend and keeping control of neighborhood land in the hands of those most interested in its success have become broad goals of the project, Mr. Sukenik said.

As for the project’s narrower, more immediate goals, Paula Maynes, of Maynes Associates, said her tours revealed the presence of unique assets in both neighborhoods that gave each a tremendous amount of potential. Public parks, accessibility to public transportation, strong community thinking, high volumes of family homes and cultural diversity were among the assets her tours revealed.

Having told residents what she saw, Ms. Maynes next asked them if she got it right.

Along with other team members, she directed the group to break out into workshop tables for each neighborhood, to answer very specific questions about current conditions and what they want to see in the future in Allentown and Beltzhoover.

While a dozen or so Allentown residents gathered around a table at one end of the room, a dozen or so Beltzhoover residents gathered around a table at the other end of the room. No matter where residents sat, they were prompted to answer the same questions.

Questionnaires distributed by the team asked residents about current situations, such as what age groups were lacking in the neighborhood, and what could be done to maintain current residents and draw new ones. Prompting residents to look to the future, the questionnaires also asked about the kinds of housing and neighbors residents expected to see in the future.

Members from the project team sat at each table to take notes on what residents had to say, and to guide them back from talking on tangents, occasionally reminding vocal citizens that the meeting was for information gathering and open discussion, not for larger political debate.

At the Beltzhoover table, some of the concerns residents raised centered on the need for more modern, updated housing structures and amenity-rich properties with more square-footage per rent dollar. The need to appeal to younger families was also discussed, with a few residents lamenting the fact that there is no public school in Beltzhoover.

As one man rhetorically queried, “How can we attract more young couples to Beltzhoover when we don’t have a school where they can send their children?”

Other complaints about Beltzhoover included lack of appropriate parking in multi-unit housing structures and lack of shopping opportunities within the confines of neighborhood.

Several residents praised area attributes, commending the area for progressing past where it was a few decades ago and for maintaining strong organizational roots such as churches and the Warrington Rec Center.

At the Allentown table, residents and members of the Allentown CDC raised, among other things, safety issues, pertaining not only to the safety of walking through the neighborhood but also to the safety, or sense of security, one should have when owning or investing in property.

A few people made mention of the alleyways in the area, stating they complicate parking situations and make for an unsafe feeling at night. While such matters would best be addressed by revamping the city’s infrastructure in these spots, the team advised simple moves such as increasing lighting and painting home fronts could help alleviate some of the safety concerns.

Because part of Allentown is located on hills along the old Pittsburgh coal lines, the issue of subsidence was discussed at some length. Team members said part of the project involves developing tools property owners can use to assess property risks, prioritize renovation goals and distribute reinvest costs in a conscientious manner.

Discussions at each table lasted well over an hour, giving the project team a lot to consider as it moves forward. Ms. Maynes said input from the meeting will be compiled in a report the team will present to its advisory group in early-September.

A second community input meeting will be held in mid-September, to be announced later. Check back with The South Pittsburgh Reporter to find out when and where that meeting will be held.

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