Big players aim to revive one of city's oldest areas

Jose Garcia looks for a tool as he works to rehab the space that used to be the front porch of the house on Beryl Street in the Pittsburgh community. The house is one of 53 properties that have been bought by a group trying to revive one of Atlanta's oldest neighborhoods.

Credit: Jonathan Phillips/For the AJC

Credit: Jonathan Phillips/For the AJC

Jose Garcia looks for a tool as he works to rehab the space that used to be the front porch of the house on Beryl Street in the Pittsburgh community. The house is one of 53 properties that have been bought by a group trying to revive one of Atlanta's oldest neighborhoods.

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The percussion of nail guns signals new life for a bungalow that stood boarded up for about a decade.

The shotgun cottage, about a mile west of Turner Field in Atlanta’s Pittsburgh community, once was a hot commodity. It sold 10 years ago for $160,000 during the mortgage-fraud abetted days of Pittsburgh’s housing boom. When the bubble burst a few years later, property values plummeted and the bungalow last sold for just $16,000.

The home on the corner of Rockwell and Beryl streets now is being rehabbed as part of the latest effort to renew one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, a place where previous revitalization pushes have had mixed results at best.

The difference this time: Three powerful and deep-pocketed organizations — the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Wells Fargo bank and Invest Atlanta — are working with a local neighborhood association to refurbish nearly 100 homes over the next three years.

The plan is to build a critical mass to turn a challenged neighborhood just south of downtown, and only eight miles north of the world’s busiest airport, into a haven for working and middle-class families.

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Philippe Pellerin, an executive with the REAL Group, the private developer on the project, said Pittsburgh has a reputation to overcome, but it’s “an incredible location.”

“It’s a Beltline neighborhood that’s practically adjacent to downtown. It’s very close to the airport,” he said. “Location-wise, there’s a ton going for it and houses are very inexpensive right now.”

An awakening economy and the trend of young folks moving back into cities are also on their side, backers say.

A leg of the Beltline will swoop just south of Pittsburgh in a few years, renewing hopes of private investment seen in communities such as Old Fourth Ward. Neighboring communities such as Adair Park and West End are seeing an influx of new families, and construction on a Beltline section there just recently started.

But few areas were hit as hard by the crash as the ring of neighborhoods south and west of downtown. Scores of vacant homes were boarded up. In Pittsburgh, about half of the neighborhood’s 1,200 houses are empty — and many are neglected, foreclosed properties that became magnets for vagrants.

Leaders from the Casey Foundation, Invest Atlanta and the Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association, a neighborhood group working for years to revitalize the area, hope that refurbishing the homes that are controlled between the organizations will spearhead a broader turnaround.

Most of the abandoned homes were purchased by the organizations out of foreclosure or obtained through condemnation proceedings.

They plan to sell the homes as they are repaired, and Invest Atlanta — the city of Atlanta’s economic development arm — can offer down payment assistance to aid would-be buyers.

Past community rehab efforts by the city’s development agency recently received scrutiny by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Those efforts involved financing of church-led groups that ultimately were undercapitalized and couldn’t follow through on plans.

The agency under Mayor Kasim Reed has been reborn with a broader mission with a more results-oriented approach under a new name, Invest Atlanta.

The Casey Foundation — started by the founder of shipping giant UPS — also controls a 31-acre site on the southern edge of Pittsburgh that the nonprofit hopes to soon redevelop as an office or industrial park that will bring needed jobs to the community.

“Another piece is helping people who live here earn a better income,” said Natallie Keiser, an executive at the Baltimore-based foundation. “The goal is job creation.”

The REAL Group also is recruiting neighbors to work on job sites, either in construction or in other roles.

Once a vibrant strip

Pittsburgh was founded in the 1880s and historically has been a predominantly black working-class neighborhood. It was once home to Clark University — now the combined Clark Atlanta University — and the neighborhood had a vibrant commercial strip along McDaniel Street.

Over the decades, Pittsburgh tumbled into a cycle of neglect. But by the early 2000s, new hopes for renewal emerged in a hot in-town property market and the promise of the Beltline.

Much of the gains, though, were an illusion, the result of flippers and, in some cases, mortgage fraud that propelled home values to unsustainable heights.

An AJC analysis in 2012 found looters gutted vacant homes and overwhelmed code enforcement. Average home prices that jumped to $84,972 in 2006, dropped to $13,241 in 2012, according to data from research firm Smart Numbers.

The scores of vacant homes invited dope dealers, prostitutes and squatters. A video of several men beating of a gay man outside a neighborhood convenience store in 2012 captured national attention.

Tina Perrin, a Pittsburgh resident since 2006 and a PCIA volunteer, said police are cracking down on crime, and residents more likely to call the cops when they spot something wrong. A strong core of homeowners involved in the PCIA has worked to beautify the area, creating pocket gardens and parks. PCIA also has homes it is working to renovate and sell.

“We have people who are active, who are concerned about safety, who are concerned about economic development, who are concerned about their next door neighbor, who are concerned about city hall,” Perrin said.

Much of the crime that happens in Pittsburgh is from outsiders, not residents, she said.

Under the redevelopment plan, Wells Fargo, Invest Atlanta and the Casey Foundation will contribute about $2.5 million toward rehab efforts.

Loans and credit

Wells Fargo’s $1 million commitment is essentially a long-term and very low interest loan. Invest Atlanta is pitching in $700,000 from its Housing Opportunity Bond prorgram, and together with the Wells Fargo money, will be used like a revolving line of credit that gets restocked as homes are sold.

Pamela Cross, Wells Fargo’s senior community development officer in Atlanta, called the bank’s commitment “a small part of the puzzle. But we think that what’s happening could result in a huge turnaround for Atlanta.”

Many of the homes are clustered around Charles L. Gideons Elementary School, while others are scattered in pockets on other blocks.

Dawn Luke, Invest Atlanta’s director of housing finance, said filling empty houses will have other benefits. The broader community needs more residents to attract retailers and potentially a grocer, an asset sorely lacking in many lower income neighborhoods.

Invest Atlanta also is working on ways to help existing homeowners bring their properties up to code and to assist seniors who might see property values spike from the effects of potential gentrification.

On Rockwell Street, the little bungalow is getting a new kitchen, bath fixtures and an energy efficient roof. Pellerin, with the development firm, said it will cost about $90,000 to repair the home, and some early properties will likely sell at a small loss. But the hope is that will change.

On a nearby side street, about a half-dozen other shotgun houses are in various states of renovation. Some of the Pittsburgh houses are small two-bedroom cottages, others are larger homes built before the housing bust. Sales start in a few weeks.

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