Lawrenceville has exploded in popularity. But the Holy Grail of Lawrenceville development, the 1940s-era Holy Family Church property on 44th Street, has remained elusive — until now.
While in grad school at Carnegie Mellon more than a decade ago, Emeka Onwugbenu saw so much potential in Lawrenceville that he started flipping houses — while also working full-time as an engineer for the Pittsburgh-based manufacturer Medrad.
“Looking back, I don’t know why I did that,” says Onwugbenu. “I mean, I have a lot of energy — I’d wake up in the morning, go to the house I’m flipping to check on the contractors, go to work at the manufacturer (which was very intense), take a lunch break and head over to check on the house, At some point in the afternoon, I’d realize that I have a test or quiz or homework for school. Classes were from 6 to 10 p.m. Then I’d go home and crash.”
Today, his company — the Butler Street-based E Properties and Development — manages about 200,000 square feet of commercial space and 150 housing units across the city (and has sold many more). Now, it has turned its attention to completing the Holy Family Church site.
“The project kind of started when Lawrenceville was at the beginning of its growth. The plan was to build 90 units in 2013. That sounded like a lot, so there was some opposition. We sat down with the residents, the community groups, had some meetings, trying to get everyone on board.”
“We had the support of the neighborhood groups, Lawrenceville United, the Lawrenceville Corporation, the Catholic Diocese — but there were two or three people who didn’t want the project, and held it up through the legal system. It was very frustrating.”
Churches can be beautiful buildings — this one has sturdy, stately Romanesque Revival characteristics — but can be hard to use for anything else.
The church will be transformed into 25 for-sale, residential units by Indovina Associates Architects, with floors, stairs and elevators added. The exterior will be kept largely intact, with some windows and balconies added.
The two other structures on the site, the school and rectory, are being demolished. Onwugbenu says they are not in good shape nor “architecturally interesting.” They will be replaced by 21 new townhouses.
The townhouses, which will have rooftop balconies, are modern in design, but their scale, density and largely brick composition reflect the industrial history of the neighborhood.
The project will use energy-efficient windows and “net-zero” energy design principles, says Onwugbenu, with a system to manage stormwater built underground.
The units will be market rate, but 10% will be set aside to be designated as affordable housing, based on median income. The total project cost is $20 million, and slated to be done December of 2022.
“It’s like the most difficult project to develop, given how long it has taken, but I’m just super excited to finally get the shovel in the ground,” says Onwugbenu.