Two corner buildings in Manchester, two among few that suggest storefront pasts, had been falling apart for years. One was condemned in 1997.
Often, when driving along Columbus Avenue, I would think, “Play the lottery so you could just save these two.”
Many Pittsburgh buildings meet the criteria of my lottery fantasies. And, every once in a while, people who have more than fantasy money step in: 1301 and 1401 Columbus Ave. are both on their way to new life because of investments in the Manchester Renaissance program.
Two years ago, the Manchester Citizens Corp. identified a short list of the most important salvageable buildings based on their proximity to strong or promising market areas. Construction on the Columbus Square project on the north end of the neighborhood, in what had been a slow-growth area, was underway with robust market interest.
Homes in Columbus Square — at the end of Columbus Avenue near the railroad — are selling as they are being built. Five units in phase one and four in phase two are done. Construction is soon to begin on the next five en route to 31 total new homes.
In addition, the MCC identified several old properties it could save. That led to preserving nine units in four long-vacant homes on Columbus Avenue that have been renovated, with families living in them. Homes on Liverpool, Sheffield, Bidwell and Juniata streets also have been renovated and resold.
The two large corner storefronts on Columbus were next as priority structures, said MCC executive director La Shawn Burton Faulk. They were in terrible condition, she said, adding, “We’re fortunate to be catching them in time.”
One has been gutted. Crews are gutting the other now. The two buildings represent a $1 million investment. Each is about 4,000 square feet and will contain a storefront and apartments on the second and third floors.
The storefronts may be better suited for offices than for retail because they are small, said MCC consultant Tom Hardy. One was a drug store, the other a little market back when retail was small.
“I remember when this was a drug store in the ’60s and ’70s,” said Kelvin Ferguson, an independent contractor working with a crew gutting the 1887 building at 1401 Columbus. “It was a family business — Miss Fanny and her sisters.”
That was a time when five markets on one block each offered a specialty, before drug stores carried food, coolers and garden hoses.
The old drug store is a handsome building with brick craftsmanship and a fire escape on the side that still has its weights and cables — another example of the weave of 19th century elegance with function.
Leading the effort on these two properties are the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. The latter formed to save Manchester from annihilation in the 1960s. Other investors are TriState Capital Bank and PNC Bank, the state Department of Community and Economic Development, the Heinz Endowments, the Northside Leadership Conference and the Rivers Casino.
Alliance Construction Group is doing the labor and Bob Baumbach is the architect.
“It takes all these partners, and we hope to have many of the same partners going forward,” Ms. Faulk said. “We do need to complete the neighborhood, and with strong partners we hope we can put together” an all-encompassing plan.
The neighborhood developed a strategic plan in 2009, and the two phases of the Manchester Renaissance program came out of it.
It’s daunting to think about completion in a neighborhood whose demolition list grows one for every one razed, but that’s not the thinking that has kept our great historic neighborhoods viable. Individual buyers, who used to be called urban pioneers, are often the first in, then preservation money comes in behind, then the wheels start to roll in fits and starts between the market and community development corporations.
First one, then the next, then the next.
“Recognizing that not every building can be saved, MCC has been vigilant about trying to prioritize what resources in the neighborhood can be preserved,” said Tom Cummings, director of housing for the URA.
In the most critical times, triage on the most important worst buildings begins a process that usually can’t move fast enough. But, as in all crises, people take turns pulling ropes and piling sandbags, and when the storms abate, a ship might come in.