By Carolyn Weber. For 20 years Tom Murphy has jogged regularly on the trail at Frick Park, Pittsburgh's 500-acre urban refuge. He then cuts through an area called Nine Mile Run, a valley with a stream that runs to the Monogahela River. Nine Mile Run was also home to one of the city's largest slagheaps. Locals joke that slag, a byproduct of steel making, is the second soil of western Pennsylvania. One day it struck Murphy that the site, located within an established area close to downtown with wonderful vistas to the river and beyond, was quite valuable and ripe for redevelopment.
But Murphy isn't just an enthusiastic local, he is the third-term mayor of Pittsburgh who had a major vision to get the city's many brownfields back into use and to attract people back to the city. Just after his election in 1994 he created a development fund, which is now up to $60 million, and purchased more than 1,000 acres of land. "We needed to pursue this aggressively because we were dealing with a 50-year trend of decline in population as well as a loss of industry," Murphy says.
The city had lots of abandoned industrial sites and a growing development fund, so all it needed was strategic partnerships to help carry out the grand plan. "We needed private partners who would share our vision as well as our risk," says the mayor, "and we were willing to meet them more than half way."
One of those partners is The Rubinoff Co. Primarily a commercial developer, Rubinoff cut its residential teeth on a highly successful infill project called Washington's Landing in the late 1980s. Six years ago the company submitted a proposal to the city for a neo-traditional neighborhood on the site of the Nine Mile Run dump. Its vision was on track with that of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, so Rubinoff was chosen to be part of the development team for Summerset at Frick Park. When completed, the $300-million-plus project, a combination of public and private funding, will be Pittsburgh's largest residential development since World War II.
The city assumed responsibility for preparing the 238-acre site for development, which entailed environmental testing and grading the 25-story tall slagheap so vegetation could grow on it. Luckily, no environmental clean-up was necessary; the city just added a soil mixture on top to contour the site and get the grades to work and to accept 3 feet of clean fill. It also dealt with watershed issues and cleaned up the stream that runs through the site. "The stream is now a wonderful amenity," says Mark C. Schneider, president and managing partner of The Rubinoff Co. "The geomorphology was restored by the city, meaning that it put the meander back in the stream." The entitlement and re-zoning process took about two years, and as in most infill situations, some resistance from the community involving density and possible traffic issues arose. "They had valid concerns," says Schneider. The development team conceded by lowering the density of the project from 1,200 units to 694 units--10 units per acre--and giving 130 acres back for an expansion of Frick Park. The city also made some commitments in terms of traffic improvements and dust mitigation measures. "We all wanted to prove that we were committed to creating a quality project," Schneider adds.
The team was also committed to following up on its vision of a TND-type plan that continued the scale and character of the adjacent Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Built in the early 20th century, Squirrel Hill has tidy, tree-lined streets with sturdy brick houses and duplexes.
"There's such a strong connection to the existing fabric of Pittsburgh," says project architect Mark Jones of Looney Ricks Kiss in Memphis, Tenn. What makes Summerset work is the scale and proportion of the houses, and their relationship to the site and each other is comfortable for pedestrians. Rather than cut a strict downtown-style grid, the planners opted for gently curving streets that conform to the site conditions. "It's not pure New Urbanism," says Jones, who notes that the discipline is not appropriate for every condition. "Instead, we used elements that are right for this situation."
Rather than using a strict TND pattern book, the architects designed a product that is highly regional and contextual to its surroundings. The broad range of local architectural styles--Classical, Victorian, Tudor--gave Jones a great deal of inspiration. "The whole team had input," says the architect. "And the result is a look that has a traditional East End Pittsburgh feel." The homes are standard TND fare, with front porches, gabled roofs, rear-loaded two-car garages, and a mix of brick and fiber-cement siding façades. "We thought of porches as mainly a Southern thing," notes Jones. "But the big, broad porches of the older homes are used quite a bit in Pittsburgh."
Summerset isn't all about nostalgia. Inside the quaint exteriors are floor plans and technology that address the way people live today. "It's the best blend of technology and fabric," says Schneider, "with first-floor masters, energy efficiency, and state-of-the-art technology." Each home is wired with a backbone system that includes Internet, phone, and cable television.
The developers partnered with Ibacos, a Pittsburgh-based group that promotes integrated systems building. As part of the agency's Building America program, it helped push the builders and suppliers for better products such as new wall systems to increase R-values, and efficiencies in lighting, heating, and air. To be certified, all of the single-family housing must meet quality standards such as the blower test for air tightness established by the U.S. Department of Energy and Ibacos.
The homes are 30 percent more energy efficient than average new homes and are eligible for Energy Star status. "All of this helps to round out a good community," says Schneider. "Buyers know that there is a standard level of quality and that they're getting more than just a good-looking house." The build-out of the three phases will take about 10 years and will include 438 single-family homes and 256 multifamily units. The product line is a mix of townhomes, cottages, village homes, and estate homes on varying lot sizes with prices ranging from $198,000 to $714,000. The floor plans of the single-family homes range from 1,800 to 3,500 square feet.
Jones' goal was to work within the narrow footprints and create room sizes that are large enough for families to gather and bedrooms large enough to get away and read. "We tried not to have extra rooms that end up 10-by-10, and we added value with larger rooms that are used on a daily basis." Several of the plans feature a first-floor master bedroom as well as an optional bonus room over the garage that can be finished as a family room or guest bedroom. On small lots, private outdoor space is imperative, so each home has access to a side porch, patio, or courtyard.
Although unique to the new-home market here, the small-lot homes were not a tough sell. Potential buyers knew the project was dense and the yards small, but they also knew that the design would allow for more open common space.
When this project was announced five years ago, public interest was intense. "People called us right away and then were on the waiting list ever since," says Schneider. More than 2,000 people turned out for the model-home opening last spring, so the developer decided that a lottery was the most equitable way to select potential buyers. Initially there were 500 people on the list, and 75 participated in the lottery. All 42 houses in the first phase sold in one hour. There are 700 people on the list for the next phase of 60 homes.
The development team was delighted by the success, but a little surprised at the buyer profiles. Market research showed that the buyers would likely be 50 percent couples, 25 percent singles, and 25 percent families. But it turned out that 50 percent of the buyers in phase one were families with children who were eager to move closer to town and wanted the TND lifestyle. The success of an infill project like Summerset is a model for older towns all over America. "It's a myth that people don't want to live in the city," says Mayor Murphy. "The fact is that every major market-rate project we've been involved in has had a waiting list."
Photo: Anthony Traub Photography
Montgomery & Rust, Allison Park, Pa.; Ralph Falbo, Pittsburgh; Penrose Properties, Philadelphia; EQA Landmark Communities, Pittsburgh; Kacin Construction, Murrysville, Pa.; and Jayar Construction, Turtle Creek, Pa.; Land planner/Landscape architect: LaQuatra Bonci Associates, Pittsburgh; Engineer: GAI Consultants, Monroeville, Pa.Both the Urban Redevelopment Authority and its private partners emphasize the importance of a team effort and cooperation to make a large, complicated project like this one work. "The city has allowed us to shoot for quality, and it has invested in the public infrastructure to match that quality," says Schneider. "If elected leaders can understand what developers are up against and work with us, they can get great neighborhoods." Project: Summerset at Frick Park, Pittsburgh; Developer: Summerset Land Development Associates/The Rubinoff Co., Pittsburgh; Architect: Looney Ricks Kiss, Memphis, Tenn.; Builders: The Rubinoff Co., Pittsburgh;