When Pittsburgh city offi-cials first laid the groundwork for Summerset at Frick Park, a $250 million public-private venture, they might as well have been building on the moon. For half a century, the 238-acre infill parcel had been a dumping ground where steel companies cast off more than 20 million tons of molten steel by-product, leaving behind a desolate stretch of slag resembling a lunar landscape.
This was brownfield remediation at its toughest, but the land held too much promise to be left fallow. Located just five miles from downtown, it had the potential to offer commuters direct access to the city core without having to navigate a tunnel or bridge. The site also was a mere three miles from Oakland, the second largest employment center in the region and home to a variety of academic and medical institutions.
It took the lead developer, The Rubinoff Co., three years of environmental work to stabilize and grade the plateau before construction could begin on a master plan that blends New Urbanist principles with architecture inspired by the nearby old-growth neighborhoods of Squirrel Hill and Regent Square. Picturesque streets named after Olmsted projects now offer a mix of housing types with Arts & Crafts, Tudor, Colonial, and Victorian styling, coupled with interconnected alleyways, old-fashioned street lamps, stone walls, and pocket greens.
That the project had tapped into a realm of pent-up demand was evident from the beginning. Upon the release of phase I back in 2001, the development partners had a list of 500 interested home buyers and sold the first 58 lots in one day via a lottery system. A second lottery in 2002 resulted in the sale of 24 lots in a single day. All homes built at Summerset are contingent on presales. Phase II broke ground in September 2007 and maintained steady sales momentum through the front end of the housing slump, ending 2008 with 68 percent of its units sold in just over a year. By the end of 2009, only 10 lots remained in phase 2A (all of which are now set to close in early 2010), and contracts had been awarded for site work and infrastructure to begin phases 2B and 2C.
Now roughly one-third built out, Summerset will include 700 single-family houses, townhomes, condos, and flats upon completion—a diverse housing mix that has fueled the community’s marathon success from day one, according to Craig Dunham, a principal with The Rubinoff Co..
“We don’t offer any discounts or incentives, and we haven’t had to do any pricing adjustments because the framework was always flexible enough to accommodate people in different life stages and circumstances,” Dunham says.
“Right now we’re seeing good activity with maintenance-free, single-floor living, which we offer in a master-down townhouse or a stacked flat condo with integral parking and elevators servicing every floor. These are big with empty-nesters. We also absorb almost immediately the 2,100- square-foot cottage with two to three bedrooms going for $350,000 to $380,000. These go like crazy, but we are mindful that we need to keep the overall mix in place.”
Plans and pricing matter, certainly, but what truly seals the deal is context, he says. Residents of Summerset enjoy the urban convenience of direct bus routes to downtown, as well as the natural beauty of a restored stream bed that’s been repopulated with fish. Long-term plans call for rail-to-trail conversions to create new bike and running paths connecting to downtown. And while the community’s competitively priced homes may look vintage, they exceed ASHRAE energy standards by 30 percent to 50 percent. That’s made moving closer-in a no-brainer for many former suburbanites.
“Now we have the convenience of being close to everything, and we don’t even think about traffic anymore because it’s just not part of our life,” says buyer Jason Greenwald, who reduced his commute by 30 minutes each way when he moved into a townhome with his wife and three young children. “It’s a much easier lifestyle.”
The municipal payback has been equally significant at a time when many cities are staggering under the weight of budget shortfalls. Land that previously generated zero tax dollars now provides $2.9 million in annual tax revenue, plus an additional $3.6 million from a one-time transfer tax. Upon completion of the community, annual property tax revenue is projected to be $5.7 million—a figure that doesn’t include additional income or employment taxes resulting from the bump in city residents.
“We’ve just completed a year with intense financial turmoil, and we’re still selling about two units each month, just as we’ve done for years,” Dunham says.
“I think when we get through the credit crisis and the current economic tumult, the projects that will prevail will be those grounded in smart land use, energy efficiency, and walkability. You’ll be able to ride your bike to work when we’re done with all of this.” B
Community: Summerset at Frick Park
Total acreage: 238 acres (105 of which will become part of the city’s public park system)
Date opened for sale: February 2001
Product: Single-family homes, townhomes, condos, condo flats, and rental apartments
Price range: $275,000 to $650,000, with a few estate homes going for $1 million+
Total units at build-out: 700
Sales to date: 236 of 256 lots available
Builders: Montgomery and Rust, Allison Park, Pa.; Kacin Construction, Murrysville, Pa.
Public partner: Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority, Pittsburgh
Private partners: Summerset Land Development Associates, Pittsburgh; The Rubinoff Co., Pittsburgh
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Pittsburgh, PA.