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Will East Liberty's historic Highland Building finally get a second life?

Built in 1909 by Henry Clay Frick and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991, the towering Highland Building in East Liberty has proven itself a worthy adversary against four past developers who backed out of plans to renovate the vacant structure at 121 South Highland Street. However, a large and determined consortium of development groups has their fingers crossed that this time will be different, as they await approval from the Governor's Office for $4.5 million in RACP funds for a parking garage, as well as Department of Housing and Urban Development financing that will make their project possible.

Last year, the Urban Redevelopment Authority approved partnering developers Walnut Capital and Massaro Properties' plans for a $23 million conversion of the Highland Building and neighboring Wallace Building into 129 one-bedroom apartments, a new parking garage, fitness center, and small retail storefronts.

"They'll be loft style apartments with oversized windows, stone counter tops, stainless steel appliances, high ceilings, and a washer and dryer in each unit. The Highland Building is going to have the great views," says Jerilyn Donahue, underwriter for the project for Bellwether Real Estate Capital, who are helping to secure financing. TKA Architects drew up the preliminary design, which essentially calls for a total gutting of the interiors, while leaving the historic fašade structurally intact.

While other developers have failed to tame the Highland Building, the parties involved believe they have a good chance of success.  For one, development of the East Liberty corridor has boomed in the past several years. With the advent of Bakery Square and the Google offices, Home Depot, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, lofts, new restaurants, and an upcoming Target, the surrounding area is far more vibrant than it was at the time of the last attempt in 2006.  More directly, past developers could not secure a parking solution for the building.

Everything is dependent on the receipt of a large HUD financing package containing loans and historic tax credits, which was applied for in February, and will hopefully be approved within the next two months.  The HUD financing, though, is dependent on the Governor's Office allowing funding for the parking garage to be built.  "We're trying to get that accomplished. We're partnering with Massaro, so we think it's a good opportunity to make this work," says Gregg Perelman, managing partner for Walnut Capital, who also developed Bakery Square.  The Mosites Company is the developer for Target.

According to URA special projects manager Paul Svoboda, the parking garage that's been designed will fit the context of the surrounding neighborhood without interfering with traffic or surrounding buildings.

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Writer: John Farley
Source: Gregg Perelman, Walnut Capital
             Jerilyn Donahue, Bellwether Real Estate Capital
             Paul Svoboda, special projects manager for the URA

Photograph copyright John Farley
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