150 new homes could be ‘Cornerstone’ of Larimer’s rebirth

Categories: HELP in the News,Larimer News

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
October 10, 2019
by Rich Lord and Ashley Murray

A neighborhood that used to be more than half vacant celebrated the ribbon cutting on Thursday for 150 brand new apartments and townhouses, part of a development that will ultimately include more than double that number of units in the city’s latest public-private community-building effort.

About 100 tenants, community leaders, and government officials gathered for the ceremony that played on the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood theme, complete with tours in a bus refurbished as a trolley car, a few Postal Service carriers and school children.

“We’re over the 50-yard line now,” Mayor Bill Peduto said. “This is a model every neighborhood now wants. … It was a vision by the people of the neighborhood who believed in the potential and pulled the state, the city, the county, the housing authority and then the federal government all together.”

Cornerstone Village, in Larimer, now includes an 85-unit first phase and the just-completed second phase. With two more phases to go, it’ll top out at around 330 homes and apartment units — a huge change for a neighborhood that had just 662 households at the most recent census.

To Audrey Griffin, this is her neighborhood now.

“This is the first time I’ve lived in an apartment where I feel like it was worth the wait. I feel a sense of relief,” said Ms. Griffin, 55, who previously lived in Homewood, where her apartment had no elevator or dishwasher.

The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh called her over the summer to say her Section 8 federal housing voucher had been accepted. Now she enjoys a community balcony and is just blocks from her doctor’s office and Target.

“I had been driving by here and looking at this being built, and I kept saying ‘that’s my new house,’” she said.

That volume of change “creates a critical mass” that could help the rest of the neighborhood to continue to rebuild, said Caster Binion, executive director of the housing authority, which has worked with developer McCormack Baron Salazar on Cornerstone Village. To get this far, though, the authority and its partners had to do a lot more than promise catalytic change. They had to prove themselves to a neighborhood that just didn’t trust government, he said.

The results include the 12 green buildings unveiled at the afternoon event, new infrastructure and a park.

Cornerstone Village’s four phases are expected to cost around $120 million, anchored by a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Phase II cost $50 million.

Also backed by low-income housing tax credits and private equity, Cornerstone Village’s apartments will be mostly reserved for families below certain earnings thresholds, with roughly one-fourth to be rented at market rates.

A two-bedroom townhome at market-rate will rent for $1,475.

“The mixed income environment is a positive for everyone,” said Mr. Binion, noting that the first phase is full and the second phase is well on its way there. “I don’t anticipate any problems getting it leased and occupied.”

When Mr. Binion began to work with Larimer leadership in 2012, he encountered a neighborhood in which almost no new homes had been constructed since the 1960s, with some 230 vacant houses and another 500 empty lots. Neighborhood leaders were in the final stages of crafting their own vision — one which was skeptical of the value of more low-income housing.

“When I went to talk to the community, those people were really, really serious. I couldn’t get them to smile,” he recounted this week. The community was “suspicious of government,” he said.

The housing authority worked with HUD and the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority to pour $1.3 million into improvement of facades and interiors of some 100 existing homes. That helped to convince residents that they’d be part of the neighborhood’s revitalization, rather than being left behind, he said.

The message: “It’s not just mixed-income [development] that’s going to look nice. We’re going to make everything around it look nice, too,” Mr. Binion said. “Through this process, the community might have a little more confidence in government than before.”

The new buildings meet the Enterprise Green Community Criteria, with water conservation features, energy-efficient appliances, low-emission paint and other environmental features. The roofs are built to easily accommodate solar panels if funding for that becomes available.

They’ll also be a hub for social services, facilitated by Urban Strategies Inc. and in partnership with the nearby Kingsley Association, with a special emphasis on care and education for young kids. The housing authority has also worked closely with Pittsburgh Public Schools, Mr. Binion said.

“It’s an integrated process to improve the community and change the trajectory of the next generation,” he said.

Cornerstone Village replaces East Liberty Gardens and a cluster of public apartments known as Hamilton-Larimer, and expects to accommodate many of their former residents. It is also built around 44 other relatively new, low-income apartments constructed by KBK Enterprises.

Read the Post-Gazette article at: https://www.post-gazette.com/business/development/2019/10/10/Cornerstone-Village-Larimer-Housing-Authority-McCormick-Baron-Salazar-pittsburgh-development/stories/201910100126