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How historic preservation rebuilt a Pittsburgh neighborhood

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Brick house by brick house, the award-winning effort to restore Hamnett Place offers a roadmap for creating affordable housing

The century-old brick building of Hamnett Place provided a backbone for restoration.
Rob Larson Photo

A working-class community located on the eastern outskirts of Pittsburgh, Wilkinsburg looked similar to many other Rust Belt cities. A decade ago, faded brick bungalows, and the occasional blighted old building or abandoned property, remnants of the steel industry crash, obscured the solid foundations of turn-of-the-century neighborhoods such as Hamnett Place.

Today, taking a walk through the neighborhood tells a different story. Due to a long-term project undertaken by the nonprofit Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation (PHLF) and its for-profit development arm, Landmark Development Corporation (LDC), the area has blossomed, with nearly 70 units of restored housing, a new neighborhood center, and ongoing preservation and restoration projects in the works. A recipient of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation award, the effort showcases how classic architecture can become the foundation for affordable housing.

“Historic buildings that have been around for a century or longer provide context for a neighborhood,” says Michael Sriprasert, president of LDC. “If you start with a vacant lot, you don’t have that history or story to tell.”

Rob Larson Photo

The recent renovation of Hamnett Place’s historic housing stock started in 2005. When the city announced plans to demolish many of the area’s old brick buildings, the community rallied around preservation, and invited groups like LDC to help create a plan for revitalizing its historic homes.

LDC and PHLF started slowly, restoring four single-family homes on Jeanette Street. When three of the restored buildings sold for 50 percent higher than the purchase price, Landmark knew there was demand for more.

After fixing up a handful of additional homes, the partnership began restoring older apartment complexes utilizing a combination of historic tax credits and low-income tax credits, including the Wilson House, Falconhurst, and the Crescent. Eventually, the restoration effort added 60 more affordable units to the neighborhood, all within a targeted, eight-block area.

Between the new bungalows and apartments, the neighborhood has an influx of new residents, and a more vibrant street life.

“If you walk down now versus 10 years ago, it’s a totally different scene,” says Sriprasert.

One of the centerpieces of the effort has been the transformation of a former auto-repair shop on a key intersection into a Landmarks Preservation Resource Center, which opened in 2010. Karamagi Rujumba, director of public communications and advocacy for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, turned the derelict body shop into a neighborhood hub. Between film screenings and cultural programming and preservation-focused programming, such as classes on gardening DIY projects, and credit counseling with a local bank, it’s become another tool to help bring back the neighborhood.

“Through the center, we can really show what preservation can do for a community,” says Rujumba.

Backers and advocates believe this is just the start. Plans are underway to restore additional homes as well as the Wilkinsburg Train Station, which has been vacant for decades. Preservationists have even nominated the main street to be added to the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s a multi-pronged approach,” says Sriprasert. “We’re working to restore buildings for the people who populate them. Creating a high-quality environment that people want to be in is the goal of the restoration work itself.”