Friday, January 17, 2014

Redevelopment of Overbrook Middle School; Is Senior Living the best use, or are Conventional Market-Rate Apartments?

In Skyscraperpage.com this morning, I came across a rendering of a proposal for the long-since closed Overbrook Middle School building. A developer wants to convert this building into an assisted living community and construct a new independent-living community adjacent to the existing building as well as construct a foot path to the nearby light rail and bus stops. While senior living is something constantly in high demand, so are market rate apartments within the city of Pittsburgh. The question is, is Senior Living the best use for this piece of land, or is it more suitable to put conventional market-rate apartments this close to decent rail and bus rapid transit?

The Blue Line, which is one of the two light rail lines serving Pittsburgh and its South Hills communities, is actually a renovated old trolley line. Prior to the reconstruction, the line had fallen into a state of disrepair and was therefore closed in 1993. The reconstruction brought the system up to current standard so that the more modern light rail cars could use it. Regarding the old Overbrook school, the school building itself had been closed for some time. Within the last ten years or so the city shuttered several school buildings in order to cut costs, and I recall Overbrook being among thsoe schools. Just down the street from the school was a neighborhood consisting of about a dozen homes, and these homes were condemned and torn down several years ago due to flooding of Saw Mill Run Creek.

Ever since the trolley line was brought up to current standards, and given the already existing access to the busway, this area is ripe for some investment in some housing or commercial use. Given that this proposal could be considered as both (a senior living community managed by a private company more or less), it is considered a good use for the land, especially given the handicapped accessible transit nearby. As asked above, is this the best use?

As an apartment community:

Given the latest trends in apartment data, Pittsburgh cannot keep up with the pace at which apartments are being leased. Residents are signing leases faster than developers can build them. This school is in a prime location given the close proximity to adequate public transit as well as a major arterial roadway, Saw Mill Run Boulevard. There is also an existing recreational field that could be used as open recreational space for apartment residents.

The aforementioned road could be a bit of a deterrent for residents. The road handles supreme levels of traffic during peak travel times. It is the main arterial road from many South Hills neighborhoods into Downtown Pittsburgh as drivers approach the Liberty and Fort Pitt Bridge and Tunnel. Plus, there is the issue with flooding along the Saw Mill Run Creek. As mentioned before, existing houses nearby were condemned and demolished due to the flood threat. Considering that was further downstream, perhaps flood mitigation work could occur here if it has not already.

As senior living

The direct access to public transportation does make this attractive for a senior living community. The light rail platforms are elevated, and the developer wishes to construct an access path to the light rail stop and busway from the proposed community. Giving the aging population, senior living communities are also in high demand. The one issue I see with this, however, is how much traffic would this generate along Saw Mill Run Boulevard? Will some take advantage of the public transit available at their doorstep, or would most of them drive their personal vehicles? Also, the community may provide its own transportation for doctors and other healthcare reasons at several times throughout the course of a regular business day. Saw Mill Run Boulevard already handles traffic beyond its designed capacity.

My take...

Given the traffic on Saw Mill Run Boulevard and the traffic generated by an assisted living community, I would think that conventional market-rate apartments would be the best use for this particular piece of land. Most senior living communities are auto-centric when it comes to their design, and this is going to use a building that itself was a rather auto-centric design. Sure, it will provide access to public transportation, but I think the vast majority of the users are going to be employees traveling to and from work.

With regular apartment residences, you can target people who work in Downtown, Station Square, South Hills Village, or the North Side. As this system is expanded in the future, people working in places north and west of the city could be sought after as potential renters.