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Braddock, Pennsylvania: Affordable Housing for Artists Helps Revitalize the Commercial Center of a Steel Town
Located less than 10 miles east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the borough of Braddock has attempted over the past decade to revitalize its formerly vibrant commercial core. Braddock's economic fortunes, which were closely tied to the success of the Edgar Thomson Steel Works plant currently owned by U.S. Steel, have declined as the area has deindustrialized. The borough's economic woes have contributed to a population decline from a high of approximately 20,000 in 1920 to less than 2,000 in 2020. In recent years, the borough has pursued the adaptive reuse of historic assets to generate new commercial and residential activity. The Ohringer Arts Building, 37 units of affordable rental housing targeted to artists, is an architecturally significant building that was once a thriving furniture store in Braddock’s central business district. Beyond housing, the project provides a gallery space where residents can promote their creative works to fellow artists and the larger community. State and federal historic preservation tax credits helped finance the project, which needed to meet historic preservation standards for maintaining building elements and designing new features that improved the original structure. By converting the underutilized property into affordable housing for artists while maintaining the historical integrity of a community landmark, the Ohringer Arts Building is contributing to the revitalization of Braddock.
Bringing a Braddock Asset Back to Life
The Ohringer Arts Building opened in early 2021 and gives preference to local artists. The eight-story structure consists of 29 one-bedroom, 1 two-bedroom, and 7 studio units. Households earning up to 20 percent of the area median income (AMI) can occupy 4 units; 14 units are reserved for households earning up to 50 percent of AMI, and the remaining units are for those earning up to 60 percent of AMI. Seven units are designed to accommodate tenants with disabilities. A committee of community members, local artists, and other stakeholders selected the building's initial residents using a broad definition of "artist" that includes anyone who is involved in a creative endeavor but does not necessarily receive income from their art. The building is intended to house artists from diverse creative disciplines.
The building's common spaces encourage residents and community members to learn about different artistic disciplines and exchange ideas. Spaces reserved for residents include a multipurpose basement with eight studios especially suited to visual artists, as well as two rehearsal rooms. On the first floor, a community room for residents extends outdoors to a private patio space. A rooftop deck offers residents a panoramic view of the Monongahela River Valley and can be used for social gatherings.
The primary gallery space, intended both for residents and the larger community, is on the first floor and is visible from the street through the building's large windows. Resident art is displayed throughout the gallery, including in the space inside a curved glass corner where the furniture company showcased merchandise on a rotating platform. The gallery also opens to an outdoor public patio that is next to the residents’ patio. The developer has allowed residents to use the gallery at no cost to promote the artistic works of Braddock residents.
Financing the Ohringer Arts Building
Gregg Kander, a tax attorney who decided to pursue investment opportunities that benefit the local community, put together a $14.2 million development program that provided affordable housing and supported local artists (table 1). Borough, county, and state officials supported the concept and contributed to a funding package that included federal low-income housing tax credits and state and federal historic preservation tax credits. Allegheny County provided gap financing for the adaptive reuse of the building, even though the renovation required more funding than the county had initially planned to provide, in order to realize greater value for the borough. For its role in adding much-needed affordable housing, Allegheny County Economic Development earned a 2021 HOME Excellence award from the National Association of Local Housing Finance Agencies.
Table 1: Financing for the Ohringer Arts Building
|Low-income housing tax credits||$9,742,782|
|Historic preservation tax credits||1,969,331|
|Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund||500,000|
|HOME Investment Partnerships Program through Allegheny County||1,815,000|
|Duquesne Light Company rebate||9,190|
Revitalization and Community Exchange
Community planning efforts in recent years have identified the historic building as an important property for restoring Braddock Avenue to an active commercial corridor. The 1941 Moderne building, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2020, is the tallest and one of the most architecturally distinctive buildings in the corridor. Preserving the curved corner windows, repairing the exterior wall bands of terra-cotta and brick, and retaining a portion of the first floor's terrazzo flooring and woodwork were key tasks that maintained the building’s historic significance. The building's iconic blade sign was also replaced in a way that prominently communicates the property's historic value.
Braddock's comprehensive plan calls for restoring historic buildings to foster the revitalization of the borough's main commercial corridor, and a 2012 market restoration study of Braddock Avenue designates this section of the corridor to become a "vibrant center for community exchange of dialogue, goods, and services.” This revitalization strategy led to the launch of a restaurant that attracted interest for more commercial and residential developments in the borough, including Kander's first housing development.
The arts are a key component of community revitalization and have been used to reactivate vacant buildings such as the Ohringer Arts Building. The project follows other local examples of reactivating vacant buildings and lots using what the American Institute of Architects calls "tactical art-based interventions.” Kander originally planned to have a public café on the first floor, but a community development expert encouraged him to use the space as an art gallery to highlight residents' talents and attract Braddock residents to the building. Area artists have used the gallery space for exhibits and other community programs, including an open mic night and an exhibit of one resident's photographs of people nationwide wearing face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. The building's property management company specializes in affordable artist housing, and Kander hopes its connection to the Brew House Artist Lofts in Pittsburgh will lead to artistic collaborations with the Ohringer Arts Building.
The building's restoration and new uses help advance community development goals in several ways. One of the Ohringer Arts Building's contractors bought a nearby building and converted it into a trade school. Nearby retail businesses have improved their properties, and a skate park is planned down the street. According to Allegheny County staff, the Ohringer Arts Building is one of several new housing developments and property acquisitions that have added 80 units of affordable rental housing, 6 homeowner units, and new commercial and park space over the past decade. Further contributing to Braddock's revitalization, Kander is redeveloping a property across the street from the Ohringer Arts Building in partnership with a local nonprofit to provide supportive services for survivors of emotional and physical violence. Kander is also developing a space for the PearlArts dance studio and recording company.