The Free Press buildings on Braddock Avenue in Braddock have been renovated. Photo by Kim Lyons.

Over the background noise of trucks, buses and other traffic along busy Braddock Avenue, state and local officials on Friday cut the ceremonial ribbon on a $1.65 million renovation of one of the most prominent buildings in one of the Mon Valley’s most talked-about boroughs.

The Free Press building, which spans 522 through 528 Braddock Ave., had been vacant for a decade, before the Mon Valley Initiative bought it in 2013 with help from Allegheny County’s Vacant Property Recovery Program. It used to house businesses such as Guentert’s Bakery, the Braddock Moose Lodge and the Braddock Free Press newspaper. The space will now be home to retail tenants like Studebaker Metals and Meter Feeder, Inc., a variety store, a pizza place and a coffee shop, as well as seven apartments on the upper floors.

The idea for the renovation began in 2011, as a reimagining of Braddock following the closure of UPMC Braddock hospital, says MVI real estate director Patrick Shattuck. “The community really wanted this to be a kind of civic plaza,” he says. MVI discovered almost immediately after purchasing it what bad shape the building was in: years of water damage had rotted through support beams, and the entire building was on the verge of collapse. “It was not the typical renovation, we had to get in quickly and get working on it.”

Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, wearing a ring made by Studebaker Metals, which is known for its bracelets and cuffs and more, praised the cooperative effort that allowed the renovation to progress so quickly. “This is another great day in Braddock,” Fetterman said. “This is what we can accomplish when we come together.”

Rich Fitzgerald, Michael and Alyssa Studebaker, John Fetterman and other state and local officials cut the ribbon for the Free Press building renovation project. Photo by Kim Lyons.
Rich Fitzgerald, Michael and Alyssa Studebaker, John Fetterman and other state and local officials cut the ribbon for the Free Press building renovation project. Photo by Kim Lyons.

The project will restore 28,000 square feet back to Braddock’s tax rolls. And the apartment units will be listed at affordable rental rates, says MVI’s Zinat Naderi.

While much of the building needed to be completely overhauled, there are some architectural details that were preserved, including the tin ceilings in the storefronts facing Braddock Avenue, and some of the original interior design.

Disaster Restoration Services are the contractors, and its workers were at the building Friday. The architect on the project was LGA Partners.

Along with the $150,000 MVI put into the initial purchase and structural work, funding came from the Braddock Economic Development Corp., the Allegheny County Economic Development department and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

There’s still work to be done on the building, but Studebaker Metals has already occupied its space and is preparing for a grand opening next weekend. Michael Studebaker said Friday he and his wife Alyssa knew as soon as they toured the Free Press building that it was the right fit for them. Their store occupies a split-level space in the rear of the building, with a metalsmithing workshop downstairs and a storefront upstairs.

“This is really a testament to what can happen when a strong community is rallied around strong leadership,” Studebaker said.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who was at his first of two ribbon-cutting ceremonies on Friday, praised the work of the Braddock Borough Council and the agencies involved in moving the project ahead. Those gathered Friday agreed that the project was one more chapter in Braddock’s ongoing comeback story.

“Braddock’s best days are ahead of it,” Fitzgerald said.

Kim Lyons is an award-winning writer and editor always on the lookout for a great story. Her experience includes writing about business, politics, and local news, and she has a huge crush on Pittsburgh.