‘Blighted’ land in Frick Park targeted for homes
The tidy lawns and tony homes of Summerset at Frick Park are far from Pittsburgh’s economically depressed neighborhoods.
Yet, members of the city Planning Commission this month voted to designate a largely vacant 176-acre portion of the otherwise high-end Squirrel Hill housing plan as “blighted property.”
“The term blight is the wrong term,” said Todd Reidbord, the Planning Commission’s vice chairman, who voted in favor of the designation. “I think it’s really an area in need of redevelopment.”
Urban Redevelopment Authority officials say they’re ready to expand what its widely viewed as the authority’s most successful housing development built with a mix of public and private money.
Since 2001, 256 homes have been built in two phases on a reclaimed 244-acre slag heap that overlooks the Parkway East near the Squirrel Hill Tunnel. The next two-part phase is expected to add 256 homes for sale and a 30,000-square-foot commercial building along Browns Hill Road.
A third, final phase would add 217 homes, taking the total to 729.
Work on the next expansion could begin early next year if the URA can obtain permission to offer subsidies to developers through tax-increment financing — a special tax district in which the city, county and school district agree to collect about 65 percent of taxes owed to them over 20 years.
The three taxing bodies would receive about $1.6 million a year in real estate taxes once the homes are built. The tax deferral would generate about $25 million over its two-decade term. The money would be used as leverage to obtain an $11 million PENNVEST Brownfields loan.
The tax-increment financing is necessary because the URA doesn’t expect to receive more subsidies from the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, which has given $17.5 million to develop Summerset, said Tom Cummings, URA director of housing.
“The public bore a lot of the up-front costs to get it started,” Cummings said.
“Over time, more of the responsibility has shifted to the developer,” he said. “I think it’s in recognition of the fact that this development has been successful.”
But public subsidies remain to support a development in which houses sell for between $298,000 and $625,000.
In addition to the tax-increment financing, Cummings said the URA is loaning Summerset Land Development Associates, headed by North Shore-based The Rubinoff Company, $2 million at a 4 percent interest rate.
Rubinoff will repay the URA — and a separate loan from First Niagara Bank — by selling the lots to home builders.
Cummings said the tax-increment district is the only way to complete the development, which has attracted dozens of new residents to the city and is being credited with raising property values in nearby sections of Squirrel Hill and Swisshelm Park.
It offers a side benefit of “capping” a large portion of the slag heap with houses, Cummings said. The URA is responsible for preventing slag from leeching into Nine Mile Run, a stream that runs through the middle of the development.
Slag can make the water too alkaline, which can hurt fish habitats, said Brenda Smith, executive director of the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association.
“We’re in favor of completing phase three because that area, which is a remote deserted area, is frequented by illegal ATV riders,” she said.