B’nai Israel building could be used for new charter school or low-income housing
Real estate developer Walnut Capital wants to build 48 low income housing units on the property but a proposed charter school, the Catalyst Academy, is also vying to use the space.
The fate of the building that once housed Congregation B’nai Israel in East Liberty remains uncertain.
Most recently the home of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School, the building at 327 N. Negley Ave. has been vacant since 2016. While it is still owned by the Urban League, site control has been handed over to real estate developer Walnut Capital, which is seeking financing from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency to build 48 low income housing units, according to public records.
Meanwhile, a new proposed charter school, the Catalyst Academy, is trying to get approval from the board of the Pittsburgh Public Schools to open its kindergarten through eighth-grade school there in 2019.
A public hearing on Dec. 18 was inconclusive on Catalyst’s application.
Catalyst submitted its 3,000-page proposal on Nov. 15 for the school board to peruse. Last week, at the public hearing, about 20 Catalyst supporters addressed the school board, as well as “a few critics,” according to Brian Smith, who is slated to be Catalyst’s CEO if and when the school can get its charter.
A second hearing is scheduled for early February.
It is not easy to get approval to open a charter school, Smith said, noting it has been about 15 years since a new charter has been granted in Pittsburgh.
“Historically, this is a tough road to go down,” Smith admitted.
One of the prerequisites to obtaining a charter is that an applicant school must have a facility secured in which to operate.
Smith said that Catalyst has an agreement to pursue the B’nai Israel property for use as a school if it receives approval for its charter.
But, if Walnut Capital “pursues another development, we’ll have to find another building,” Smith said.
A representative of Walnut Capital did not return calls from the Chronicle.
The real estate on which the former synagogue is situated consists of more than three acres of land, and the 24,000-square-foot building has 14 classrooms, a gymnasium, a library, large social halls and a sanctuary that seats 1,100 people.
In 1979, the B’nai Israel building received a plaque from the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, designating it as a historic landmark. It does not have a City of Pittsburgh historic designation, however, which would mandate a regulatory process for the review of all changes and alterations by the Historic Review Commission to the exterior and appearance of the building. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at