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Saline Dissolution

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The tiny Saline Street cul-de-sac in Squirrel Hill, isolated on three sides by woods but facing several industrial-looking blocks of Brown's Hill Road, has half a dozen houses and a future that is now much more certain -- to the regret of some residents.

In January, Walnut Capital Partners approached homeowners about the possibility of purchasing their properties. Walnut had just bought the land along Brown's Hill currently occupied by the Electronics Institute and Rosedale Technical Institute, as well as a garage, to redevelop into a neighborhood shopping center. Owning the Saline houses could help Walnut expand its plans, the development company explained in a letter. (See "Saline Solution," Jan. 8).

Six months ago, some homeowners were in favor of the deal -- under the right circumstances -- and others were reluctant or even unwilling to move. Today, homeowners in both groups say they were wooed so successfully by Walnut's proposal that they feel as if they've been left at the altar -- because the wedding is now off.

The irony of the situation -- damned if they do, damned if they don't -- is not lost on Anthony Dolan, the Walnut principal who courted Saline homeowners this spring by offering to find them new homes, pay for moving expenses and even help with home improvements once they moved.

"It was a sincere effort," Dolan says of Walnut's approach. "We were at that time merely trying to assess the opportunities. People attempt to buy properties all the time. In this case it didn't work out." When not every homeowner wanted to sell, that was the final straw, he says.

"If we couldn't get all of them we couldn't just buy some of them. The only way to convince them was to increase the price, which wouldn't have made financial sense. I had our engineers take a look at what the added value of purchasing these homes would be to the development and the cost didn't justify it."

Guan Keguang, a four-year Saline resident whose home is filled with, and surrounded by, numerous plants, says Dolan visited him several times this spring: "He was very friendly. So he persuaded me to trade in my house for another one. Originally I told him I didn't want to move, even though you can give me a better house. I like the place where I can take a walk, walk the dog. He said, 'We can make compensation by providing a better house and we can provide everything, even moving.' So he gave me several houses to choose from. My wife and I took it very seriously. Finally we decided on one -- smaller, not very far from our house, but it's newer. That was in January or February."

Guan says he thought Walnut was pressuring him to move by April. Dolan thought Guan himself was in a hurry. Certainly, by May, Guan was concerned -- either he had to start his garden in the old place or in the new; either he had to re-contact a contractor he'd consulted about fixing his Saline garage or finish picking out that fence he says Walnut had promised to help him install in the new place. Guan says he contacted Dolan several times in the spring about moving, heard little, then gave up.

"He wanted us to make a decision that early and we couldn't," Dolan says.

As of July 3, however, Guan still had not gotten word of Dolan's decision. His neighbor Steve Rusiewicz only knew the deal was off because his daughter, Alice Veltri, who had attended her parents' meetings with Dolan, had e-mailed Walnut on May 29. Dolan says he replied that day that "I do not believe we have an interest" in the deal.

Veltri had already picked out what she believes is a perfect house for her parents -- a ranch house on her own street in West Homestead. Paramedics had had a difficult time getting the 80-year-old Rusiewicz from his second floor on Saline for an emergency hospital visit earlier this year.

"I don't know that we would have heard from [Walnut] if I hadn't e-mailed," says Veltri. "I mean, my mother's been packing stuff."

"We really believed him," says Guan. "He had been so nice and so generous, and we accepted his terms. Then it seemed like a practical joke. We didn't ask for anything. He just offered us things. We really took it very seriously."

In the end, says Dolan, expanding the Brown's Hill Road shopping center may not even have been the proper move to consider. "The more I thought about it, if our project got too large in scope people may be turned off by it, that we're trying to do too much over there."

Will Walnut ever try to buy the Saline properties again?

Says Dolan: "I think it's very unlikely. I would never say never to anything, in life or in real estate. [But] I don't think the facts will change."

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