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New push for Downtown living won't just mean condos



Amidst the mad rush to build luxury condos Downtown, some developers and foundations are striving to build affordable housing to make for a more inclusive community.

Over the past few weeks both TREK Development, an Oakland-based developer, and the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation have unveiled plans to build apartments that cater to those who cannot afford to shell out for a condo or pay the high rent that living Downtown now commands.

With a $3-million loan from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, TREK recently purchased the historic Century Building on Seventh Street with plans to convert the semi-vacant office building into roughly 60 rentals, a mix of studios and one- or two-bedroom apartments. Rents will range from $550 to $1,200 a month but will be based on the tenants' income. Half of the units will be reserved for those who make 40 to 60 percent of the area median income. According to 2006 federal statistics, the area median income in metropolitan Pittsburgh is $57,400 for a family of four.

"We're trying to serve the urban dweller on a budget," says Bill Gatti, president of TREK Development, who spearheaded the development. "We did wage analysis: People who make $19,000, $22,000, the cooks, secretaries ... they can't afford to live Downtown."

Like Gatti, some observers of Downtown development trends have raised concerns recently that many working-class people are priced out of the market even as the city's newly declared neighborhood is trying to attract more residents. [See City Paper Main Feature, "A Tale of Two Center Cities," May 9, 2006.]

But it isn't cheap to build Downtown. Even with the loan, Gatti still has to pony up $12 million to do the conversion; he expects to raise $7 million by applying for tax credits from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation started work last week to preserve three historic buildings near Market Square by converting them into seven apartments with access to a rooftop garden.

"We want to try to attract people who don't have the down payment for an expensive condo but who would like to live Downtown," says foundation president Arthur Ziegler.

The foundation plans to market the apartments to middle-income professionals and doesn't expect to make money.

"This is not a winning proposition, economically speaking," says Ziegler. "We're subsidizing the project." The foundation's goal is to make Market Square more vibrant by adding more affordable housing into the mix.

Meanwhile, city officials, foundation representatives and others involved in Downtown developments, who are part of the Downtown Housing Working Group, are encouraged by the Century Building development, which they discussed at the group's meeting last week.

"Our goal is to make sure Downtown is a neighborhood for all," says Mary Navarro, senior program officer with the Heinz Endowments overseeing the foundation's center-city initiatives and a member of the group. Navarro says this new development will be held up as an example that it's possible to offer housing to a variety of people at a various pricing levels.

"There are ways to achieve affordable and workforce housing Downtown," she says, but "these are prickly deals to make work financially."

However, developers say what serves the greater good in the housing market is good for business after all. "For downtown housing to work," says Gatti, "it has to have a variety of price points served."

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