Gregg Kander likens the old Ohringer building on Braddock Avenue to the Empire State Building.
While the differences between the two structures are obvious, Kander does have a point.
Stretching eight stories high, the Ohringer building, once home to the thriving Ohringer Furniture Store, remains a prominent landmark on the main drag in Braddock — a sort of symbol of former glory and future possibility to the struggling town of just 2000 people, decimated by the decline of the steel industry in the Mon Valley in the 1970s.
The Ohringer building has been mostly abandoned for decades, as have most other buildings in Braddock’s business district. But Kander, a Jewish lawyer-turned-developer from Pittsburgh, is intent on changing the landscape of Braddock by creating improvements and growth for its residents, beginning with the Ohringer building.
On July 30th, 2019, a groundbreaking ceremony was held at the Ohringer building, launching its anticipated yearlong transformation into an apartment residence for 37 artists.
The project is part of a community-driven revitalization plan that is gaining strong momentum, thanks in large part to Kander, who has been pivotal in obtaining funding.
“It’s all about community,” said Kander, who began his involvement with Braddock a couple years ago when he stepped in to help raise money to launch chef Kevin Sousa’s acclaimed Braddock restaurant, Superior Motors.
Kander was inspired to work on behalf of Braddock after hearing the words of Pastor Tim Smith, president and executive director of the nonprofit Center of Life in Hazelwood.
“He gave this great little talk one time about how we are here for a limited time, and when someone comes to you with something that can help a person or a community, we often are inclined to say, ‘I’ll get to it later, or that I’m too busy with the kids,’” Kander recalled. “We make excuses to not get involved. He said, ‘Next time you get that message, you’ve got to go.’”
Two days later, Kander got the message when Maxine Lapiduss, the best friend of his late wife, Ellen Kander, approached him regarding Superior Motors.
“Maxine came to me and said, ‘There is this great opportunity in Braddock, this Superior Motors restaurant, it’s stalled for about two years, and it’s all about giving jobs to the community. I think it would be up your alley to get involved,’” Kander said. “That decision to say ‘yes’ about three years ago has totally changed my life.”
Now, Kander is all about Braddock.
“I wake up thinking about it, I go to sleep thinking about it,” he said. “Superior Motors had the best success you could ever even dream of in the first year. The last thing I ever wanted to do was to invest in a restaurant, but it wasn’t about the restaurant, it was about jobs.”
More than 50 percent of Superior Motors’ employees are Braddock residents, he said, adding that among other recognition, the restaurant was named one of the top 10 in the United States by Food and Wine in 2018.
“This led to (then) Mayor (John) Fetterman saying, ‘Keep going,’” said Kander. “Fetterman said, ‘Here are the keys to this Ohringer building.’”
Kander has procured about $14 million in funding, including historic tax credits, to convert the building into artists’ residences to help revitalize Braddock.
“I believe artists transform communities,” Kander said. “They make a place interesting and exciting. I wasn’t doing it for these 37 artists, I was doing it for these 2,000 people who are in the community.”
The artists, he said, will all “be screened by the community,” as part of the effort to “fight gentrification.”
“We are going to shoot for a nice balance of black and white artists living together, as a way to learn from each other, be in relationships with each other, and live with each other. We really are excited,” Kander said.
Braddock was home to hundreds of Jewish families in the early and mid-20th century. It boasted three synagogues, two kosher butcher shops, a Jewish Community Center and active B’nai B’rith and AZA chapters. Braddock’s main streets were lined with Jewish businesses: jewelry stores, furniture stores and clothing stores.
The Ohringer building was built in 1929 by Abe Ohringer, a Jewish philanthropist who donated the first $50,000 to launch Hillel Academy in Squirrel Hill. His wife, Helen Ohringer, was a founding member of the Ein Karem Chapter of Hadassah and was one of the first women in the country to sell more than $100,000 in State of Israel Bonds.
“The Ohringer Project is one of the most significant building projects in Braddock over the past 60 years,” said Braddock Council President Tina Doose in a prepared statement. “Community-minded artists are proven to transform neighborhoods and we welcome their participation and involvement along with the vibrant commercial first floor retail.
“The timing could not be more perfect as Allegheny County, which provided gap funding for the Ohringer project, plans on releasing approximately 55 formerly blighted properties for sale and development in the fall,” she added.
Allegheny County has been “proud to be a partner with Braddock Borough and the many organizations and companies that have invested in and made Braddock their home,” said County Executive Rich Fitzgerald in a prepared statement. “We are excited that those investments by the county and others bring even more investment to the borough.”
The project received additional funding from PHFA and First National Bank. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.