The former B’nai Israel Synagogue and School in Garfield (327 N. Negley Ave.) is more than just a beautiful building — it’s the story of a community’s resilience and perseverance.
“Physically, the building is a masterpiece, designed by architect Henry Hornbostel,” says Michael Polite, executive vice president of Beacon Communities’ Pittsburgh office, which is spearheading the redevelopment.
Hornbostel left a major mark on the city, designing the campus of Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University, the City-County Building and Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum.
“Beyond the building, it’s the story of a group of people that settled in the Hill District, started their congregation, put some money together, bought some land in Garfield, and created something fantastic,” says Polite.
The synagogue, which was built around 1920, closed in 1995, with much of the Jewish population that it served having gradually left for the suburbs. It was briefly home to the Urban League of Pittsburgh Charter School, now known as the Urban Academy.
Now, it’s vacant.
However, Beacon Communities is leading an $18.5 million project to return the magnificent building to a productive use with 45 units of mixed-income rental housing along with a community center in the massive, circular sanctuary (known as the Rotunda). Of the 45 units, 38 will be affordable ($750-$900 monthly rent, with some additional project assistance available from the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh), and seven will be market-rate.
The Rotunda — once a sanctuary that could easily hold 1,000 people — will have space for artists, classes and performances.
“This Rotunda that has this long history as an icon in the neighborhood, that the neighborhood had struggled to find a use for.” says Polite.
“People are interested in gathering spaces for communities. It’s hard work to find the right partners to raise the resources to do the capital investments, and to sustain it on an operating basis. That’s all work we have in front of us, but we’re committed — and you don’t come across a building like this every day. When it is up and operating, it’ll be a center point for the neighborhood and engage people from all over the region.”
It’s going to be designed to the highest standards of green building — Passive House and Enterprise Green Communities certified — with electric power and rooftop solar panels. There’s also a self-sufficient micro-grid energy system in the works, as well as an urban farm.
“We’re responding to the community’s need for fresh produce,” says Polite. “We have a significant lawn that abuts Negley. We want to use that to grow produce. There are a number of groups committed to the urban farm, and we’re raising money now for that.”
Earlier this year, Pittsburgh-based Catalyst Communities merged with Beacon Communities, amplifying a 20-year partnership between the two.
The Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency secured funding for the project through an incremental process of assembling state, local and private sources, including $1.25 from the Urban Redevelopment Authority and $1.09 million from the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh.
“As Beacon’s most recent Low Income Housing Tax Credit development in Pittsburgh, we are deeply appreciative of how the neighborhood, the city, partners, and funders came together to make this transformative project possible and give new purpose and life to this community treasure,” says Dara Kovel, CEO of Beacon Communities.
Beacon Communities’ motto is “we do difficult.” The company specializes in the adaptive reuse of old buildings, repurposing dozens of old factories and mills for housing. Of its 150 properties, it’s currently turning an old YWCA into housing for the homeless in Boston’s historic, wealthy Back Bay neighborhood.
The Garfield synagogue, however, is unique.
“There’s not a better example in our portfolio that underscores the ‘we do difficult’ theme,” says Kovel. “We don’t shy away from challenges.”
Lawrenceville-based Desmone Architects is handling the building’s design. Construction will start immediately, with an opening expected in the fall of 2022. Applications for housing will become available in the summer of 2022.