A Refreshing Approach

Affordable Housing for the Regular Man

Pittsburgh, much like any industrial-era city has a plethora of abandoned or out-of-commission buildings laying to waste.  Pittsburgh Public Schools alone has over $15 million going into maintaining closed school buildings that are no longer needed, a number so large that it could almost build a new school or furnish  new materials for each one in the district.  These abandoned buildings don't only stop there, but continue on with old churches, old warehouse buildings and even office buildings in the downtown area (Smithfield Street Cafe is absolutely beautiful).  Pittsburgh, also much like any industrial-era city, has a large shortage of housing.  With a continued population growth - especially in the past five years - it's getting harder to find a place to live.  This is even more true if you're a young professional fresh out of school and looking to not break the bank.

Housing shortages are something a bit new to a city that once almost fell into the same fate as Detroit.  Homes and properties, while still cheap, never would be thought of to be as much as they are today.  When the mills shut down in the 80's, many jumped ship to head for brighter tomorrows instead of waiting to see if life would improve.  The fact of the matter is that life did certainly improve and with that, population density increased and living here got to be much, much more expensive.  Take for example the neighborhoods such as Lawrenceville or the Southside.  Both areas at one time were almost  wastelands but have since seen a resurgence primarily from younger professionals who made these places their own (not to mention South Side has the highest per-capita bars out of any city in the Unite States).  These young people were seeking a place to call their own that they could actually afford and that wasn't their parent's basement.  Properties in both of these neighborhoods has skyrocketed and now have led to a decreased ability to start life off without first living at mom and dad's. 

For  young people much like myself, there are two options in Pittsburgh.  Buy a house and put some work into it or live in a par-at-best apartment that you can still barely afford.  This situation is not uncommon among other industrial-era, technology-boom cities such as Philadelphia or Chicago.  This was never an issue here, however making it an even larger one since it's harder and harder to find a decent place to live.  

How can we as designers begin to think about this situation in a different light?  There are very few vacant properties and the places that have availability are way too out of price range.  Gentrification points us towards dilapidated and out-of-touch neighborhoods once again, but that always has controversial socio-economic conditions tied to it.  But wait, didn't I just mention the large amount of abandoned buildings around the city above?  Aren't a lot of them in possession of the school district who is diligently looking for more funding just to keep the doors open for their students?  Why can't the district's problems become our new homes?

Gladstone Middle School 

 The site as it is today ©Google Maps

The site as it is today ©Google Maps

Located in Hazelwood on Hazelwood Avenue, this 120,000 square foot beauty once housed thousands of middle school children, after school activities and even late-night GED programs for adults.  Hazelwood itself was a bustling community when the mills were in operation in the late 19th through mid 20th centuries, and so was Gladstone Middle School. Since the closing of the mills, it has seen a falling out, increases in crime and violence  have driven all that could afford to leave out into better places, but this once promising plot of land that sits on the Monongahela river has all but wasted away.  Sitting closed for thirteen years now, Gladstone is a storage warehouse for unused school equipment, it costs the district around $140,000 to maintain it each year, that's a lot for a structure that is on the market for a mere $250k.  

It is, as a matter of fact for sale.  The district has been odd at unloading properties such as Schenley High School, but this large campus that has seven acres of land in the city is up for not much more than a mid-aged profession would pay for a nice home in Pittsburgh.  This school not only has potential to be a great new 'cool' place to live, but could become a catalyst for change in a neighborhood that has been long overdue for change.

A Residential Development

 Proposed redevelopment of the site which includes over 7 acres of land and 120,000 sqft of building

Proposed redevelopment of the site which includes over 7 acres of land and 120,000 sqft of building

These types of developments have become synonymous with modern-age urban design. Creating mixed use plots that have living quarters on top and commercial on the bottom guarantee a maximum return on investment early and throughout the life of the building. Gladstone, however, could be an experiment of sorts for a new type of dwelling for young professionals: affordable housing for young professionals.  

Affordable Housing has long had a negative connotation, and understandably so from both an economic and political standpoint, there is no right or wrong, just a whole bunch of problems that have been left unsolved.  Instead of the typical method of creating "affordable housing", this proposal seeks to create one for young professionals, priced accordingly to accommodate those who are just out of school and have excruciating amounts of debt.  What qualifies one as a young professional is still up for debate, but the control over who can reside in these apartments could come down to a post-secondary degree of sorts.  Price ranges could be made to fit individuals or certain classes of individuals by debt to income ratios.  Whatever the case may be, these new apartments could be a way to get more indebted young professionals out of their parent's basement and into a respectable apartment they can call their own.  All the while, this could create an insurgence of development to a ravaged neighborhood.

A Public Face

A preliminary sketch of the new greenspaces and public corridor from Hazelwood Avenue

It's important to look at this kind of development differently than other urban manifestations in the past ten years.  Gentrification has usually been the way of doing such new projects, but we want to move away from being okay with forcing people out of their homes.  This applies especially to those whom live around the proposed site, some have been in their homes for their entire life.  Instead, Gladstone is a place where the public understands those living inside aren't better than them nor are they in much of a better boat.  Keeping things such as the basketball courts, which have become the only memorable and operable component remaining on the campus, open and available to the public is crucial.  Kids can still use these courts that would be updated and maintained by the Gladstone community as long as they were respected by those who used them.  This space would remain the same keeping the front entrance and procession to the old school very similar to what it was not even thirty years ago.  

Urban farms and gardens would litter the rest of the campus.  With seven acres of land to use, there is plenty of room to create new green fields, parks and mini farms which all promote social engagement, self-sustainability and an understanding and tolerance of the different types of people that exist in the context.  It is of the utmost importance that there is no display of superiority of the new residents over the existing ones, the only way to create less tension is to make public spaces that are beautiful and respected by all. 


This is a tricky situation, especially when the borders are trying to be hidden between existing and new residents.  Hazelwood still is a grittier neighborhood than most with increased crime and the only way new residents will move in is if they are sure that they and their belongings will be safe.  Gated parking and secured building access would create a boundary that would lightly define the difference between the new and existing.  Public spaces on the outside could easily be secured as well, especially after the sun goes down and crime tends to increase.  The most important part of creating security is to ensure that the new residents don't feel like prisoners and the existing don't feel like criminals.  There is a time and place for social interaction with the community, that doesn't need to happen within the residents' private spaces inside the building.  


Community interface is crucial and will welcome the public into the new greenspaces

Urban farms and adaptive reuse are two very important sustainable aspects to the success of Gladstone.  Not having to build a new structure would reuse the stored energy of the materials already in place while reducing waste from yet another deconstructed building.  With a promotion of a healthier lifestyle and more green space in a city, the amount of sustainability that can be achieved in this project alone is staggering. 

Internal Operations

Of course, the most important part of this entire proposal is what actually happens inside the school.  Assuming this is much like any other school built when it was (1904), there is probably a decent amount of asbestos still sitting stagnant.  This of course, must be removed along with many other internal partitions and spatial diversions that disallow a looser adaptation.  Keeping the old school equipment could make for affordable but posh ways of decorating and furnishing apartments, once again saving money and the environment with reused components.  With 120,000 sqft of space, there can be up to 150 single units of 800sqft (not accounting for support, circulation and public spaces).  You could assume there would be at lest 80 new units of living which could mean anywhere from 80-160 people could have a new place to live.  It's important to maintain character which is great because the gutted parts of the building's interior can now become reused in some fashion.  Public spaces on each floor or in each section of the building tie people in to associate themselves as part of a community, all while having great visibility to their context and the green-scapes all around them.  

Linda Lane, the Pittsburgh Public School's Superintendent once said of Gladstone, "People think old schools are worth a lot of money...They're simply not.  They're good for uses as a school, but not so much for other uses". Ms. Lane, I'm going to have to respectively disagree with you, old schools have seen a high resurgence with the rise of adaptive reuse in the United States. There is a possibility for Gladstone to see another day in the sun, it's all a matter of some dirty work and understanding what the people want.  It's time to show the public that this beautiful old building that once meant so much to the youngsters that ran around its corridors is just as useful as it once was.  Atop that, it's even more important to show that Hazelwood along with the new riverfront developments will emerge from their rubble, and this time the economy or industry aren't going anywhere any time soon.  

VIA | Tribune Review