From slag to city streets, surmounting challenges
ROBERT STEUTEVILLE    JUL. 1, 2004
Summerset, a traditional neighborhood development on a brownfield site, gets high marks for sales, appearance. If TNDs were skating jumps, Sum-merset at Frick Park in Pittsburgh would be a quad. While new urban communities are, as a rule, challenging, this project has extra twists that heighten the degree of difficulty. Consider: • Summerset is being built upon a massive slag heap that is the legacy of the city’s defunct steel industry. Constructing a neighborhood on slag required large-scale earthwork and reclamation, as well as modifications to house foundations. • A dirty, degraded stream, Nine Mile Run, that ran through the slag hill is being cleaned and restored as a wetland and greenway, connecting the city’s venerable Frick Park with the Monongahela River’s trail system. • The houses were designed to meet green building standards. A study of actual energy use shows Summerset homes are heated twice as efficiently as comparable conventional new houses. • Summerset was the first large-scale TND in the Pittsburgh area. Although the city has fine old neighborhoods, stakeholders were unfamiliar with the use of typical new urban elements such as alleys, small lots, and vernacular architectural styles in a new development. • Unlike many in-city projects, the site lacked all the infrastructure needed for development, including streets and water and sewer lines. Summerset had some factors in its favor, including proximity to the thriving city neighborhoods of Squirrel Hill and Swisshelm Park, relatively good schools, and a strong public-private partnership. Amazingly, this complicated physical and architectural transformation is taking place as planners envisioned it. The first phase of Summerset is attractive and has drawn the attention of public officials, developers, and the green building industry. The public has responded well. That phase, now sold out, was so popular that two lotteries had to be held to choose buyers. Although interest may have cooled somewhat in the second phase, houses are still preselling at a brisk pace, developers report. Prices are well above projections. Remediation work has been completed, allowing phase two to proceed over the next four or five years. Phase three, on the other side of Nine Mile Run, will require new government funding and substantial remediation. Because of solid support from public officials to date, developers are confident the funds will be found. Summerset is receiving support from a variety of public funding sources. The total, estimated at $30 million so far, is paying for infrastructure and related projects, such as revitalization of Frick Park and stream restoration. Market response Surprisingly, about half the first phase buyers are families with young children, notes Mark Schneider, president of the Rubinoff Company, one of the development partners. “You should see the streets in the late afternoon,” he says. “It’s like Brooklyn in the 1950s.” Many of these families would have moved to the suburbs if not for Summerset, he contends. “Summerset has not been a catalyst for revitalization, because the area around it was not in trouble,” says Susan Golumb, the city’s planning chief. “but Summerset brought people in from the suburbs and kept people in the city who would have moved to the suburbs.” The development is an example of how well-positioned housing can influence settlement patterns, says market researcher Todd Zimmerman of Zimmerman/Volk Associates. The brownfield aspect of Summerset apparently did not hurt market response. Nor did it affect the urbanism. “We were able to plan the typical streets, alleys, and public realm elements that we do in every project,” says Don Carter of Urban Design Associates, one of the master planners. Building on slag required substantial site contouring and establishment of vegetation, especially on the slopes, Schneider says. It also added a couple of thousand dollars per house in foundation work. But the biggest challenge posed by the slag is time. The developers say they could be building and selling more houses if the site work were not slowing the process down. Green building aspects Summerset houses were equipped with high-efficiency windows, HVAC systems, and appliances, and steps were taken to make units more airtight than is typical. Insulation, particularly in foundations, was boosted. IBACOS (Integrated Building and Construction Solutions) of Pittsburgh, the environmental building specialist hired by the developers, estimated that these measures would add $5,000 per house. Exact costs are difficult to pin down, Rust says, because a lot of the changes are made part of routine building practices. “At some point you reach cost limitations,” says Rust. For example, the developers tested a poured insulated foundation using foam forms — which would have doubled insulation on the foundations, over and above what had already been achieved. “We couldn’t justify the cost, unless you were really trying to push the envelope,” Rust says. Architectural elements like brick corbelling at the cornice lines, upgraded materials, and high-quality columns add to the cost, Rust says. He views these details as investments well worth the cost. “That is what separates a mediocre house from a great-looking house.” Rust says. “People come in and say they like the look of the houses. If you cut back [on the architectural details], at some point you lose that quality.” “We may go a little too far at times,” he acknowledges. One example is the round gutters used in the first phase for a “purist architectural look.” The gutters turned out to be difficult to work with and hard to obtain and will be eliminated in the second phase. The added costs have been justified by the substantial price premiums achieved in Summerset. Prices are $270,000 for townhouses, $297,000 for 2,000-square-foot cottages, and about $400,000 for village homes, the developers report. Custom homes are going for more than $600,000. Summerset does not live up to every new urban ideal. Connectivity with surrounding neighborhoods is poor, largely because of the topography. Furthermore, Summerset is not a good site for mixed use, because commercial districts already exist nearby, Carter says. A thriving urban shopping area in Squirrel Hill is a 15-minute walk from Summerset, and a huge big box district is located 5 to 10 minutes away by car. The project, entirely residential at this point, may include a small amount of commercial in a future phase. Officials were highly cooperative in the planning approval process, developers note. Convincing the residents of nearby affluent neighborhoods was another story. Eighty community meetings were conducted. Residents were driven to Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Maryland, to show them a TND. “Getting people to understand why we were building new houses in the same format as the old houses was difficult,” says Schneider. Some residents were concerned that the site work would stir up airborne pollutants. Seven independent studies were conducted, and none showed any problems. Residents were also concerned that Summerset would bring down property values. That concern has proved groundless. One local columnist mocked the resistance, dubbing the campaign “Save Our Slag Dump,” Schneider reports. He notes, however, that the neighbors’ criticisms helped make Summerset a better project. Summerset has a high profile, both figuratively and literally. “You can see it from the Interstate,” Carter says. “There used to be this horrible black slag dump, and now you have beautiful houses on it.” “The most amazing thing is that a lot of supervisors in suburban communities are coming in and saying ‘this is what we want,’ ” Schneider says. “A lot of builders are coming in and looking at the density and saying, ‘I’d love to do that.’ ” Carter says having a TND in Pittsburgh helps give New Urbanism local legitimacy.