The landscape of Squirrel Hill was drastically altered last week when a four-alarm fire engulfed the vacant building on the corner of Murray and Forward avenues next to the now-closed Poli Restaurant. In the aftermath, building inspectors decided that not only did the two-story building, where the fire started, need to be demolished, but they also slated the historic restaurant for destruction as well.
According to Sonya Toler, public information officer for the Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety, the fire was so large that 60 firefighters responded. Toler said there was “no determination” yet as to the cause of the fire but that there were no injuries.
The restaurant’s building had been vacant for more than a decade and had been acquired by Action-Housing, Inc. and Jewish Residential Services (JRS), which had already planned a seven-story development housing the Howard Levin Clubhouse, JRS offices and a total of 33 apartments in the upper five floors for lower-income and special-needs families.
According to Deborah Friedman, executive director of JRS, the timeline for the project will not change, despite the early demolition of Poli.
“JRS has been engaged in fundraising for the project, and we’re doing well,” said Friedman. “We have to coordinate with Action Housing, whose plans depend on tax credits that they’ll be applying for in the fall and won’t know the outcome of for a few months after that.”
Friedman said that because of having to wait for those tax credits, she thought groundbreaking would still take place “in late 2016.”
According to Friedman and Linda Metropulos, director of housing and neighborhood development for Action Housing, “there are no plans to acquire” the now-demolished vacant property that had buttressed Poli. That property, along with the vacant movie theater on Forward Avenue, is owned by former Pittsburgh residents.
Marian Lien, executive director of the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition, said, “We’re all waiting to see what will happen [to the vacant property]. This is a corner of economic possibility.”
Lien explained that the coalition’s role is to look at the community and find the best developers and projects it can.
“The last we heard, two developers had put in bids,” for the site, she said.
City Councilman Corey O’Connor calls the corner the new “gateway to Squirrel Hill” and is excited about the possibility it offers. In addition to his hopes for development, O’Connor was quick to thank both the firefighters for putting out the fire and business owners and the city for the speed in which the site was demolished.
His views are shared by Squirrel Hill resident Dr. Arthur Berman, whose offices are located on Murray Avenue.
“It’s great they’re going to do something now, because we want to see lower Murray advance,” said Berman. “[I’m] excited something will progress, because all the money seemed to be going to East Liberty.”
Dave Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.