While the two owners of a now gorgeous building Downtown designed its renovation with the market in mind, they may both end up moving in.
Harris Jones, of Swallow Point Ventures, and Bill Krahe, of Grand View Development Co., have been renovating the building at 820 Liberty Ave. into four expansive and high-ceilinged lofts. Each encompasses an entire floor with about 3,000 square feet of living space, private elevator access and reserved parking in the Smithfield-Liberty Garage next door.
They’ve spent three years of planning and investment after buying the building from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust for $451,000. While that’s very low for its size and location, the building was covered in brown paint and the upper floors had been abandoned for 40 years. Jones said they weren’t sure what they would find as they started to renovate and they poured a lot of money into it.
They’ll market the rental units to prospective tenants starting in January although one is already committed and another is reserved for Krahe, who is moving from East Liberty. Jones says he would like to move in eventually as well. The units will rent for $7,000 a month. While that price seems high for Downtown, he says the comps justify it. There are few three-bedroom units Downtown — one of the few has been renting for $6,000 a month for years, he notes — and he says the lofts are unique in their layout and design.
“There’s nothing like it,” says Krahe. “It’s one of the coolest spaces in Pittsburgh.”
Krahe, who has developed automobile dealerships for Rob Cochran, noticed the building one day while touring another property across the street. 820 Liberty Avenue previously housed the Pittsburgh Popcorn Company on the first floor. Krahe and Jones, who spent 20 years in the wireless telecom industry, agreed to be partners in its transformation.
“We are big believers in the macro trend of the re-urbanization of America,” says Jones, who spent 10 years in London before moving to Pittsburgh in 2010. He has also lived in Philadelphia and Boston. “I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s when the American population was moving quickly to the suburbs and I believe, we believe, that has shifted. Pittsburgh is a touch late to that trend, but it seems to be accelerating now.
“What made the building really special for us is, we think Liberty’s coming back in a big way,” says Jones, who adds that the Cultural Trust will be taking over the first floor. “It is also uncommon, in that most of the Downtown buildings tend to be much narrower. This is close to 60 feet wide and very lofty in feeling; some of the finished ceiling heights are 16, 18 feet, so you have this immense volume feel to it that’s unlike any other building.”
Because it’s north-facing, the building’s massive windows give the apartment lots of natural light without the problems that direct sunlight can cause, he says.
Architect Dan Rothschild with Rothschild Doyno Collaborative made the most of a unique floor plan that contains angles. One angled hallway creates what Jones and Krahe call “the knuckle,” leading to a bedroom set apart from the rest of the living space. It’s where the elevator and stairs will be, enabling secure, private access. Sota Construction Services is the contractor.
“There’s not a building like it in the city, configuration-wise,” says Krahe, noting that the elevation, ceiling height and windows change with each floor. “The windows off the back end of the building are impressive. The view’s not as great, looking off Strawberry Way, but each one of those floors has unique characteristics, relative to elevation.”
Essential to their project was cutting a deal with the Pittsburgh Parking Authority for underground parking and elevator access in the basement of the adjacent garage, Krahe says. Through the garage, residents also could access the Duquesne Club at the rear of the building without having to emerge to street level.
To obtain historic tax credits for the Victorian brick building, which was built in 1881 and sits in a historic district, the partners must lease the apartments for a number of years. During the renovation, Ernie Sota preserved historic elements of the building, exterior and interior, Jones says.
The partners praised Cultural Trust and City of Pittsburgh officials for helping them to navigate many challenges to make the project work.
“It’s unique,” says Krahe. “Being part of the Downtown renewal and the excitement that’s there, it’s been fascinating.”
The staff at NEXTpittsburgh contributed to this article.