Jack Benoff’s third condo project in the Strip District will be his first that doesn’t include adaptive reuse of an older Pittsburgh building.

Ten of the 50 units in the Forte Condominiums are sold, even before the planned groundbreaking set for April. These customized, one- to three-bedroom units will be part of a six-story structure to be built on a Penn Avenue parking lot located between 26th and 27th streets. They’ll be offered for sale at prices ranging from the $300,000s to $700,000s.

Buyers, ranging from people in their 20s to those in their 70s, should be able to move in sometime during the second quarter of 2021, says Benoff, president of suburban Philadelphia-based Solara Ventures.

“This is a first for me, in that I’m not doing any adaptive reuse whatever,” says Benoff, whose first Strip condo project was the Otto Milk Lofts. He also developed Smallman Place in the Strip and 941 Penn Ave. in the Cultural District.

He’s pleased that some of these new condos will be affordable for first-time homebuyers. “Price less and over-deliver, that’s what I like to do,” he says. “I like to allow people to customize, whereas with other projects, you have to take their finishes. People are spending what may be a lot of money to them, and they don’t want me to pick two kitchens or say, ‘These are your hardwood choices, either gray or black.’ Let them customize so that no two units look alike.”

The design by Indovina Associates Architects will be flexible, and one side of the building will be four stories. At least one buyer has decided to combine two condos to make a four-bedroom home. Ten of the units will feature two stories with private rooftop decks and terraces on the lower level, Benoff says. The building will also have integral parking.

“The most important thing I’ve learned in Pittsburgh is we need our parking spots,” he says. “Everybody needs a car.”

While not everyone would agree with that, he says many people are choosing to live in the Strip District (or neighboring Lawrenceville or Downtown) because they can walk or bike to shops, restaurants and entertainment venues. The Strip has changed immensely with its multitude of housing and office developments since Benoff bought the Otto Milk property in 2006.

Back then, he says, “Pretty much everybody told me I was crazy. A president of a bank told me no one would ever want to permanently live in the Strip District, and banks wouldn’t lend to me. … When I did Otto Milk and you wanted to get lunch, you really had to go into the heart of the Strip because there was nothing above 25th or 24th street. And when you did, it was you and truck drivers and factory workers. Now, I come out to lunch and everybody’s got name tags. It’s a pretty diverse community.”

Benoff purchased the latest parcel, a 28,000-square-foot lot, from tech entrepreneur Francois Bitz, whose earlier proposal to build an 18-story condo project there was rejected by the Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment because of the new RIV zoning height restrictions. Its location is an area that Benoff once considered “a tweener” — not quite the Strip and not yet Lawrenceville — but “that’s not true anymore,” he says, because development has expanded the neighborhood. “In my mind, at some point, the Strip and Lawrenceville meet.”

Benoff likes the Strip, and loves that he proved people wrong about its potential to become a vibrant community and destination for tech companies and residents. To a large extent, he credits Chuck Hammel of Pitt Ohio and Robert Beynon of Beynon & Co., partners in a 1998 project to develop the former Armstrong Cork building in the old warehouse district into the Cork Factory Lofts.

“They proved people would pay high rent,” Benoff says. “The city’s very busy now, so prices for development have gone substantially higher than they were two or three years ago. That’s good, right? Because everybody’s busy. As I drive around the overall area, there’s a ton of construction. … That’s good for the local economy.”

Benoff typically develops only one project at a time. His plan to develop luxury condos at 2700 Murray Ave. in Squirrel Hill is on hold.

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.