Hill District
Hill District

The old Contractors Department Store building and Center Builders Supply building in the Hill District, and the vacant land in between, could become Rhythm Square if a series of developments in the neighborhood advances. The mixed-use Rhythm Square project is expected to include gallery space, live-work space, affordable housing units and micro-restaurants.

It is one of six development projects that on Thursday will be considered for approval for exclusive negotiations by the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA).

Exclusive negotiations are the first of three board actions required before a property is sold in the URA’s Disposition Process. During the period, developers refine their concept, explore financing, advance their architectural drawings and meet with the community. At the end of the exclusive negotiation period, developers are expected to submit a detailed proposal for consideration by the URA.

The six development teams will be taking on 55 properties along the Centre Avenue corridor. All but one parcel are owned by the URA. The other is owned by the city.

“Generally speaking, the community wants to see a mix of retail, commercial office space, as well as housing, to bring additional vibrancy,” says Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, of the Hill District. “The goal is to rebuild Centre Avenue as the commercial corridor for the Hill District community, and it’s really exciting to see these small proposals begin to advance.”

The URA is expected to vote on Thursday to advance all six development teams, drawn from 11 that originally responded to the Centre Avenue Request for Qualifications in July 2019. The URA’s Equitable Empowerment Fund was created beforehand, in partnership with Neighborhood Allies, to provide technical assistance to make sure each project was feasible and fits with the community plan.

“Normally, for a development site, we may do a request for proposals, and you might have to spend $5,000 to 10,000 on renderings and everything that it takes to respond,” says Lavelle. “In this scenario, we say ‘Let’s not do that.’ We want to be very intentional specifically for minority-owned companies, for women-owned companies, who don’t necessarily have $10,000 to spend on a response.”

All of the development teams are owned by women or minorities, and/or have ties to Hill District nonprofits or cultural institutions.

The six development teams include:

• Amani Christian CDC, which seeks to purchase the former African Queens building and adjacent lots and redevelop the site into ground floor commercial space with upper floor affordable rental units.

• MOKA Art Gallery, which wants to buy a vacant lot behind the art gallery and transform it into a green space for community music and art.

• Salon XO and Bridging the Gap Development, which plans to purchase and redevelop property in two phases. Phase 1 would rehabilitate an existing structure into an upscale salon with a spa and wellness center on the first floor and affordable apartments above. Phase 2 is a mixed-use development. Salon XO was established in 2014 and now rents space in the neighborhood.

• Studio Volcy, LLC is proposing Rhythm Square, which includes the rehabilitation of the former Contractors Department Store building at 2225 Centre Avenue, and the Center Builders Supply Building at 2237 Centre Avenue, as well as the vacant land between the properties. The mixed-use development will include gallery space, micro-restaurants, live-work space and affordable housing.

• The Sankofa Group, Inc. plans to develop the vacant land to the east of the Thelma Lovette YMCA in two phases: Sankofa Square, a three-story commercial structure and parking lot, and Sankofa Estates, an 8- to 12-unit mixed-income, multi-family development.

• Thomas Boyd, who has operated Big Tom’s Barbershop in the Hill for 14 years, seeks to purchase and redevelop the former Hamm’s Barbershop building and adjacent lots located at the corner of Centre Avenue and Kirkpatrick Street. Boyd wants to rehabilitate the first floor and relocate his existing business to that building. The upper two floors would be renovated as two 2-bedroom apartments. The adjacent lots would be used for an outdoor deck/lounge space that would be utilized by the community and local businesses.

“We want to ensure that as we attempt to rebuild the Hill District community that longstanding residents, like Big Tom, who’s a great example — someone who has been renting in the neighborhood, has been there for an established period of time, is a resident of the community, has his business there … could now have an opportunity to own his own business within the community and help the community grow,” says Lavelle.

As large-scale development begins to finally get underway in the Lower Hill, the goal is to complement it with smaller developments along Centre Avenue, he adds.

“As we do the Lower Hill, we don’t want to displace residents, but we want to help them build up their community at the same time,” says Lavelle. “We want them to also own the community, so that we don’t necessarily see the displacement of minority-owned businesses that you’ve seen in East Liberty.”

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.