East Liberty image via SabreGuy29 / Flickr</a.

The Mellon’s Orchard Apartments on North Negley Avenue in East Liberty are clearly in need of renovation. “Nobody would want to live there if they had other options,” says Pamela Collier, project manager for the Homewood, East Hills, East Liberty, Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar, and Larimer Protection Initiative (HELP).

Collier, along with East Liberty Development, Inc. (ELDI) and the developer, Mellon’s Orchard Investment Partners (MOIP), plans to change that by transforming the current complex into a renovated, mixed-income Class A residential complex. MOIP will tear down the old apartments, but is not ready to discuss any designs, or whether the new site will be one or multiple buildings. (Note: This information about the teardown was added to the article after publication. It was not divulged before.)

The project is part of ELDI’s community plan to bring more affordable housing to the East Liberty area and is focused on helping the building’s current residents return once the work is completed.

According to the plan, 32 families will need to find new temporary homes during the reconstruction, which is expected to take 18 to 24 months.

They will be given help finding new homes and will be welcomed back when the project is finished. Collier also says that the developer has agreed to accept Section 8 vouchers, which are currently used by some of the Mellon’s Orchard tenants.

“We were working with our partners at East Liberty Development, and they wanted us to pursue this direction. We wanted to pursue this direction. And so it was kind of a meeting of the minds,” says Eric Jester, a partner at MOIP. “I just never thought of doing this any other way … it’s just the right thing to do.”

Residents will pay essentially the same rent after renovations as they do now. Rents are set based on what is affordable for returning tenants who make 50 percent of the Area Median Income, Collier says, which she notes is $30,000.

So “if somebody is paying $500 to $600 a month now,” Jester says, “they’ll be paying $500 to $600 a month later.”

When the project is complete, it will offer a mix of units affordable to returning tenants, including those using Section 8 vouchers, along with market rate units.

“They (MOIP) were very willing and very open to doing this,” Collier says. “People who are from Pittsburgh understand what it’s like to live in Pittsburgh and we’ve all watched our neighborhoods change. We want, as much as possible, to make it easy for our residents to continue to work, live and play in the area that they are used to.”

Urban Strategies, a relocation services firm that has worked on projects in Larimer, will provide tenants with financial assistance packages for moving expenses, security deposits and counseling.

“It’s a scary thing when you’re told to have to move,” Collier says. “So what’s been done with this development is there’s handholding going on, and assistance being offered.”

Most residents are expected to stay in the East Liberty area during the redevelopment and all have the right to return to their old apartments when renovations are completed.

“One-third of housing is permanently affordable in East Liberty,” says Collier, who also sits on ELDI’s board of directors. “That’s information that doesn’t seem to get out when we talk about gentrification and what neighborhoods should look like and really what good community development should look like.”

The building has 30 apartment units currently occupied plus more that are empty, Jester says. After renovation, there will be space for market-rate apartments as well as affordable ones.

A budget for the project and a list of planned amenities is not yet available, says Collier, and no renderings of the project have been released. Jester says that for now, the relocation efforts are the priority.

“We’re really focused on making sure we’re successful in the relocation effort and the planning around it,” Jester says. “So at the moment, we just don’t want to get distracted with anything else. We want to stay focused on that and making sure that’s successful. We feel a responsibility to make sure this is well done.

Collier says the finished building will be comparable, in terms of amenities, to the Eastside Bond Apartments near the Port Authority Busway in East Liberty. But she had no specifics to offer at this time.

Jester says: “As for any sort of design elements or costs, we’re not prepared to talk about any of that right now.”

We predict this development will be watched closely and will report back on the progress.

Rege Behe is an award-winning journalist, writer, and editor. A native of Trafford, Pa., he's covered school board meetings, reviewed concerts, and interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winners including Michael Chabon, Ron Chernow, and David McCullough. He never goes anywhere without a book, likes to hike, and is fond of animals.