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Redeveloping A Vacant Lot In Pittsburgh Can Be Full Of Refrigerator-Sized Surprises

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
Architect Peter Kreuthmeier reviews blueprints at the office of Loysen + Kreuthmeier in Garfield on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017.

For decades, contractors demolishing old buildings in Pittsburgh knocked them through the sub-flooring and filled in the holes with whatever was left behind. Debris, support walls, bricks and even appliances -- all topped off with dirt.

This story is part of Essential Pittsburgh, our ongoing series exploring how Pittsburgh lives and how it's evolving.

“You find old refrigerators and old furniture,” said Peter Kreuthmeier, an architect with Garfield-based Loysen + Kreuthmeier. “You know, kind of a treasure hunt.”

That kind of infill is cumbersome and expensive to excavate, he said, but contractors are managing it one major development at a time.

His firm is not alone.

Pittsburgh's budding popularity has inspired a new wave of redevelopment to many of the city’s old, vacant lots.

Kreuthmeier has been rebuilding on the buried remnants of Steel City houses and buildings for 25 years encompassing all kinds of projects, from the Allegheny branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh on Federal Street to gobs of private residences.

This month he’s working on a multi-story building in Garfield’s commercial district for a couple who plans to have a law firm on the first floor and a residence above it.

Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Architect Peter Kreuthmeier helped work on the Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny on Federal Street in the North Side. He said the space used to be a brownfield.

The lot they chose along Penn Avenue is a desirable spot in an up-and-coming neighborhood, he said, wedged between the future home of a gluten-free bakery and pop-up artist venue. It used to be home to a bar, until it was torn down 10 years ago. What's left behind is a pile of rubble, littered with trash and tattered old clothing. 

It's also narrow, with the previous foundation still underground.

Kreuthmeier said he's used to taking creative approaches. He'll work around it, leaving the old basement where it is and fashioning a new one within it. Like a box within a box, he said.

“Because when we excavate for this, we don’t want to disturb the neighbors to the left or right," he said. "So keeping that existing basement wall in place was something that our structural engineers felt very strongly about."

That’s not the case for Eric MacDonald, of Lawrenceville. He likes that his current residence is central, making it easy for him to travel around the city for his job as a consultant, but he wants to build his retirement home. He's also building in Garfield -- a neighborhood that he said is just as convenient for work, but where land is a fraction of the price. 

He purchased five vacant adjoining properties from the city, but the likelihood of excavating five foundations and shutting off utility hookups is setting back his project by tens of thousands of dollars, MacDonald said.

Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
A vacant lot on Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh's Garfield neighborhood as seen on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017. Architect Peter Kreuthmeier is working on a mixed-use building for the space, which will include a law firm on the first floor and a residence for the owners above it.

“I go to the bank, and you're getting a loan for $300,000 or whatever it is and then go back and say, ‘I can't finish the second floor because I had to spend $40,000 on the site work, or site prep,” he said.

The city demolishes as many as 500 structures per year, each for its own reason. Sometimes fire damage or years of neglect hasten the need, but the volume is adding up. Today, Pittsburgh has an estimated 13,000 vacant lots scattered like buckshot across its 90 neighborhoods.

“You know Pittsburgh is growing in population again, but we're down almost half of our population from the peak in the ‘50s,” said Maura Kennedy, director of the city's Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections. “So while we are growing again and it's very exciting time for Pittsburgh, you know, population patterns are changing.”

Knocking down an old or hazardous building might seem like a simple, pragmatic choice for a homeowner, but not for the city. Demolishing one building costs as much as $10,000 to $20,000. And it’s important to think of the effect on surrounding properties and, more broadly, the community, Kennedy said.

Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Architect Peter Kreuthmeier with his dog, Zeke, at his Garfield-based office on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017.

She helped the city update its demolition standards last year for the first time in a quarter-century, requiring more modern cataloging techniques and setting clear standards for what contractors can and cannot do. 

Contractors in 2017 are more limited to what they can leave behind with the foundation -- no more refrigerators -- just basic building materials like structural block or bricks.

“We require all fill in the void to be clean,” Kennedy said.

Contractors are also bound by particular fill and topsoil needs that prevent invasive plants from overtaking the lot. Grading requirements help manage storm water runoff, she said.

“To make sure that we are leaving the neighborhood in a better place than when we found it,” Kennedy said.

Prior to last year’s changes, she said the city didn't have clear demolition guidelines. Some contractors did good work, but others left behind big messes, and without a set standard, she said the city couldn’t hold anyone accountable for shoddy work.

Kennedy said these steps are helping the city prepare for future growth and development. She said her department is focused on taking the future of each lot into account and how that shapes the city’s methods going forward. But Kennedy said demolitions should really be a last resort.

In perfect world, the city would not be doing demolitions, because owners would be taking care of their properties themselves,” she said.

And thinking ahead is important, said Kreuthmeier, because development is cyclical.

“There's only so much 'great address in a great neighborhood' to go around,” he said. “Putting new buildings in existing sites is, my God, it's been happening since the Romans.”