An East Ohio Street that draws Steelers, Pirates fans? Some see it, others just envision a better place for the neighbors.

More than a decade after community groups on Pittsburgh’s North Side began taking baby steps toward improving its image and raising the quality of life for residents, there are more vacant buildings and boarded-up store fronts than before lining its main retail corridor.

While it might appear things have taken a turn for the worse on East Ohio Street, looks can be deceiving.

Behind the covered doors and windows of the empty shops, construction workers are preparing to gut interior walls and begin renovations — setting the stage for a new-and-improved version of East Ohio that will take shape over the next two years.

“Not everything will go exactly as planned. But give us two years, and we will have an East Ohio Street that looks vastly different,” said Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference. “What you are seeing now is the product of years of work and preparation.”

The nonprofit coalition of community-based organizations has joined forces with the Urban Redevelopment Authority and private real estate developers to gain ownership of enough properties to give East Ohio Street a major overhaul.

Nine years ago, the URA provided private real estate developer Al DePasquale with $225,000 to jump-start home renovations on the North Side. The money was used to build nine new homes and rehab two homes on James, Tripoli and Suismon streets.

The URA is now offering $30,000 grants to any developer or business owner with property on East Ohio or East streets who want to update the facades.

So far, the public-private partnership has attracted a handful of entrepreneurs to set up shop in buildings that have recently been restored.

They have turned a former hardware store into Arnold’s Tea Shop & Café, a cheery spot that also includes five newly renovated apartments. A florist called The Farmer’s Daughter opened four years ago. The dog food store Wagsburgh opened a year ago in a building owned by the Historic Deutschtown Development Corp., although the commercial office above remains vacant.

Some of the older businesses on East Ohio that updated their facilities years ago include The Priory Bakery and the Bistro To Go restaurant.

Bigger plans are on the drawing board. They include eight renovated buildings on the 400 block of East Ohio Street with shops on the first floors and apartments on the upper levels, owned by the Northside Leadership Conference and the development company East Ohio Capital.

The Northside Leadership Conference, which is funded by the state and county, is an umbrella group for 18 different neighborhoods.

The conference also is working with SSB, formerly Slovak Savings Bank, to build a two-story commercial building in the middle of the 500 block of East Ohio. East Ohio Capital will erect a building on vacant land adjacent to it for a first floor restaurant with apartments above.

Working with the URA and another private developer, the conference is proposing a retail store and apartment project on the 600 block.

But the most ambitious revitalization projects on East Ohio will be the construction of a six-story, 96-room Comfort Inn hotel and the $4 million redevelopment of the adjoining ARC House, which will be converted to a 350-person wedding venue on the first two floors with a rooftop brew pub and a wood-burning pizza restaurant.

Both of those projects are scheduled for opening in January 2019.

“We will buy anything”

“We are looking at a North Side that is set to come into a new age,” said Mr. DePasquale, co-owner of East Ohio Capital. “We will buy anything that makes sense to us in this area — the flats of North Side.

“That includes Allegheny East, Allegheny West, the Mexican War Streets, Manchester and a little part of the bottom of Spring Garden, and whatever surrounds the park,” he said.

After renovating and reselling dozens of houses in the lower Northside for around a decade, Mr. DePasquale and his partner, John Elash, want to make a mark in the commercial real estate market with investments on East Ohio Street as well as their stake in the ARC House and the new $17.5 million Comfort Inn.

Mr. DePasquale and Mr. Elash, owners of October Development, invited two other development companies to join them in the expansion of East Oho Street, forming East Ohio Capital. Right now, East Ohio Capital has 17 new construction and eight rehab residential construction projects underway between Allegheny East and the Mexican War Streets in addition to their projects on East Ohio and East streets.

“We try to save as much of the old buildings as possible,” Mr. DePasquale said. “Any time we do tear a building down, we reach out for community support.”

They are also rehabbing 16 retail spots inside the East Ohio Street envelope. They have an ownership stake in seven of the first nine buildings on East Ohio starting at the intersection with Cedar Avenue and the first four buildings on Cedar Avenue north of East Ohio.

With so much commercial property on the main drag under their control, Mr. DePasquale and his four partners in East Ohio Capital are in a position to execute their vision of a business district that is shiny and new, with wide open patio doors in front of quaint shops and trendy restaurants.

“We want to keep the character and the aesthetics of the buildings that are there, but sort of open it up and make it much more warm and inviting so that people can walk over from Downtown at lunch and walk down the street and pick a place to have lunch,” Mr. Elash said.

A game day experience?

Part of Mr. DePasquale’s vision is to make it part of the game day experience for Steelers and Pirates fans. People could eat and drink at the ARC House, and visit the shops and restaurants on East Ohio. He plans to provide shuttle buses.

Although many stakeholders in the community support Mr. Depasquale’s plan to buy out slum property owners and businesses, not everyone is sold on making East Ohio a big stop on game days.

“We don’t want to become the South Side,” said Nick Kyriazi, former president of the East Allegheny Community Council. “We don’t want to attract a bunch of drunken suburbanites who come to the city to lose their inhibitions. We would prefer businesses that attract locals who can walk to the shops that serve our daily needs.”

Property values in North Side residential communities have gone up in the past two decades.

“We have never, ever moved an owner-occupied family out of the neighborhood,” Mr. DePasquale said, addressing concerns about pricing out current residents. “But we are trying to move out and price out absentee owners who have turned buildings into slums.”

Residential real estate values from 2008 to 2017 in the Mexican War Streets increased an average 92.8 percent from $143,833 to $277,371, according to data compiled by RealSTATs, a Ross Township-based real estate information service. Allegheny East home prices went up 51 percent during that time frame from an average $97,838 to $148,083.

The commercial district still struggles to overcome the stigma of being unsafe.

“East Ohio Street is not a pleasant atmosphere,” Mr. Kyriazi said. “You have people standing around, looking at their phones and soliciting prostitutes. They are out there fighting and screaming at each other across the street and engaging in the type of behavior that is intimidating to others who didn’t grow up using their fists.”

Getting one part going

Real estate agent Karl Owen said he has renovated 61 residential homes on the North Side over the past 22 years that he has lived in the community. When showing houses to potential buyers, he usually points out his own home on North Avenue.

“I don’t just sell a house on the North Side and drive to my home in Sewickley,” said Mr. Owen, a historic homes specialist with Howard Hanna Real Estate Services.

He sees the revitalization of East Ohio as the next leg up for the North Side. He said Mr. DePasquale and his partners deserve credit for taking on large projects that smaller developers can’t.

“There will be a dramatic change on East Ohio Street,” Mr. Owen said. “Right now, it’s blighted with empty store fronts. But I know what Al [Mr. DePasquale] can do and it will change for the better.”

Bernard Beck, past president of the East Allegheny Citizens Council, has lived in his home on Suissmon Street off Cedar Avenue since 1999. Although parts of the community are still rough around the edges, there has been a remarkable amount of change.

“We are selling homes on the North Side for more than $100,000 above what the same address would have been worth 20 years ago,” Mr. Beck said. “It’s a thing where you get one part going, then another part and people begin to realize this is a good place to live.

“You can buy donuts and the best sandwiches in Pittsburgh on East Ohio Street. And after Allie [Mr. DePasquale] works his magic, it will be an even better place for individual people to invest their mortgage money in a place to live. We have a community as safe as any in Pittsburgh and as convenient as it gets for working Downtown.”

Originally published on March 20, 2018
SOURCE: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette