(Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Last month, the communities of East Liberty and Larimer celebrated the ribbon cutting of the second phase of Cornerstone Village Apartments. The second phase comprises 150 brand new apartments and townhouses located in East Liberty across the street from Target.  Phase one consisted of 85-units in a variety of buildings in both Larimer and East Liberty. With an additional two phases in the works, the complex will have a total of 334 homes and apartment units when all is said and done. About 80% of the units are affordable and 20% are market rate.

“This development didn’t just pop up overnight,” says Kendall Pelling, director of land recycling at ELDI. The journey started back in 2005 with another apartment complex called East Liberty Garden Apartments, which once occupied the same plot of land. At the time, the complex was in the early stages of foreclosure and, without many options left, Mr. Floyd Coles, the lone member of the East Liberty Garden’s board, approached ELDI to help save the property.

“Working with the local HUD office, ELDI took over management of the property with the aim of stabilizing it for current tenants and guiding its long-term redevelopment as an affordable place to live in the neighborhood,” Pelling explained.

Kendall Pelling, director of land recycling for ELDI, gives a trolley tour of the second phase of housing in the Choice Neighborhoods development in East Liberty and Larimer during an event to celebrate the opening. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

To accomplish this, staff at ELDI worked with board representatives from each of the founding board organizations (East Liberty Presbyterian Church, Eastminster Presbyterian Church and the Kingsley Association), the property and the tenants. Stabilization included tasks such as repairing sidewalks and lighting, setting up an office on-site and addressing a $500,000 water bill.

Fast forward to 2007 and the property was fully stabilized, financially sound, and had an active board. The board and churches worked together to build a brand-new playground and hosted an annual Christmas party for the tenants. But this still didn’t change the fact that the building was beyond its useful life and the future of the property and its tenants needed to be addressed.

From foreclosure to new opportunity

Enter the Choice Neighborhoods grant. By 2010, the nearby neighborhood of Larimer had been trying for years to secure grants to redevelop the long-divested neighborhood. After several failed attempts at securing funding, they decided to tackle the $30 million Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant with the help of many partners, including the City, the Housing Authority, ELDI and others. The Choice Neighborhoods grant is a highly competitive federal grant that demands a one-for-one replacement of existing affordable housing in addition to creating mixed-income housing, while also providing resources for “people” and “neighborhood” improvements. However, in order to qualify for the grant, Larimer needed a minimum number of public housing units which they were far from meeting.

“ELDI came together with the Larimer Consensus Group and other stakeholders and together we determined East Liberty Gardens could be the key to help Larimer meet the grant’s requirements while also safeguarding the Gardens’ 127 units of affordable housing,” Ted Melnyk, Director of Family, Community and Social Equity at ELDI, said.

ELDI’s work to save and stabilize East Liberty Garden Apartments was key to the successful application for the $30 million Choice Neighborhood’s Grant. The grant has since spurred multiple phases of mixed-income development in Larimer and East Liberty, including the Cornerstone Village Apartments which just opened its doors to tenants.

Many say that this new complex is a great example of a successful public-private partnership, with the City working hand-in-hand with the private developer, McCormack Baron Salazar, local community groups like ELDI and the Larimer Consensus Group and other stakeholders to bring this project to fruition.

As reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “The housing authority worked with HUD and the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority to pour $1.3 million into improvement of facades and interiors of some 100 existing homes. That helped to convince residents that they’d be part of the neighborhood’s revitalization, rather than being left behind,” said Caster Binion, executive director of the housing authority.

Ensuring no one is left behind

Throughout the redevelopment process, the Choice Neighborhoods team worked to ensure that the residents of East Liberty Gardens had a positive relocation experience and would be guaranteed places in the new developments. Residents of East Liberty Gardens were assigned active case managers and nearly two-thirds of the residents have secured units in the new Cornerstone Village Apartments, much of it just one block away from their former homes.

The two final phases (phases three and four) of the Choice Neighborhoods development are currently underway and expected to be completed in 2021. These final 99 units will be a combination of the rehabilitation of the historic Larimer School as well as new construction on a recently cleared site on Larimer Avenue.

> Read more about the story of East Liberty Gardens.

> Read more about the Cornerstone Village opening in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.