For City Of Asylum, New North Side HQ Posed Financing Challenges

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

A $12.5 million deal that will turn a former Masonic Hall into a North Side community center called Alphabet City took nearly a decade to arrange.

When renovated and opened in September, the three-story structure will be City of Asylum’s new headquarters, a nonprofit that provides rent-free housing, a living stipend and medical benefits for exiled writers, many of whom flee their homeland because of persecution.

Charlie O’Hanlon, board member and treasurer for City of Asylum, said during a hard-hat tour on Tuesday that the complex financing was figured out by Craig Dunham, whose business, Dunham reGroup, is the project manager for restoring the steel-framed building. The original building started going up in 1893, a time when Allegheny City was the address for many of the city’s wealthy industrialists.

Mr. Dunham accomplished a creative hat trick in economic redevelopment by obtaining historic tax credits and new market tax credits for Alphabet City.

“Craig Dunham figured out a way to get both sets of tax credits for rehabilitating a historic structure and bringing in a ZIP code that is targeted for redevelopment and providing affordable housing,” said Mr. O’Hanlon, listing the three elements of the deal. Usually, such deals obtain one or the other type of credit, not both.

“No one had tried it. We were able to get both sets of credits. It’s quite a feat,” said Mr. O’Hanlon, who worked for National City Bank and Mellon Bank.

The building’s first floor, which has 9,000 square feet, will house a restaurant, a bookstore and a 21st century broadcast studio capable of screening movies and showing interviews with authors from around the world.

The restaurant, Casellula@Alphabet City, will offer local artisanal cheeses and wine. It is being opened by Brian Keyser, proprietor of Casellula Wine & Cheese Cafe in Manhattan.

The first floor also will have room for concerts and public readings and be available to rent for private receptions for up to 200 people. The building’s second and third floors will hold eight apartments, six of which will be market-rate rent and two that will be affordable. Rents will support City of Asylum’s work.

Svetlana Alexievich, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, will be the guest of honor when Alphabet City opens on Sept. 8-9. An investigative journalist, she fled Belarus in 2000.

Adam Stokes, director of development for City of Asylum, said that of the $12.5 million, $10.7 million is for construction. So far, City of Asylum has raised $10.5 million. The organization must still raise $2 million to fully fund City of Asylum’s programming for the next three years.

Local foundations — the Allegheny Foundation, Benter Foundation, Buhl Foundation, Fine Foundation, Heinz Endowments, Hillman Foundation, Pittsburgh Foundation, Richard King Mellon Foundation and an anonymous foundation — gave $3.2 million in grants.

Historic tax credits were established to spur preservation of old buildings.

New market tax credits, Mr. Stokes said, are “a way of trying to get capital to low-income communities.”

“The bookstore and the restaurant are both commercial endeavors in the space that is part of the new market tax credit,” Mr. Stokes said.

The project also received support from the Reinvestment Fund, state of Pennsylvania programs, Allegheny County and City of Pittsburgh. The Urban Redevelopment Authority, through its affiliate, Pittsburgh Urban Initiatives, along with PNC Bank, contributed $8 million in new market tax credit money.


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