by Jonathan Weaver
A western PA development firm has proposed to demolish two community schools and fill the spaces with townhouses.
TREK Development President Bill Gatti, Jr. proposed the idea and conducted question-and-answer sessions in both Ford City and Kittanning last night.
“As always, it’s a passionate and vital conversation, and we’re happy to be participating in it,” Gatti, Jr. said. “I’m from Indiana, so I know the area reasonably-well. It’s (an area) that needs some investment, we hope to make additional investments and we’ve had good experience working here.”
Gatti, Jr. also thanked crowds of about 50 in Ford City and 75 in Kittanning, respectively, for their input, and stressed community partnership while trying to emphasize past success.
“We try to always look out for the broader community (so that) our goals are aligned with your goals, (is) aligned with your school board’s goals, your leadership’s – we’re all marching in the same direction. We have to figure out ways to pull the rope together because rebuilding these cities and towns is hard work.
“If we’re working against each other, it just doesn’t work.”
Gatti, Jr., Senior Project Manager Trey Barbour and Lead Architect Tom Harley received mixed reviews from local residents after a similar message to both groups.
“We looked at this very hard – one of our core values is historic preservation (so) we really wanted to find a way to rehabilitate and reuse (these) buildings in a meaningful way (but) we were not able to do that. So what we are proposing is demolition and new construction of townhouses on the site the building(s) used to sit.”
The trio proposed two dozen, two-story townhouses for either families or seniors – with a fixed rent of an estimated $650 per month – to sit alongside both 4th Avenue and North McKean Street.
Both at Ford City and Kittanning, some residents advocated for building single-family homes rather than the townhouses.
Development of both sites would begin as soon as 2018 if the group is successful receiving Low Income Housing Tax Credit from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.
Gatti assumed at least $150,000 construction cost of each unit in Ford City.
The tax credits would be sold to a local investor for money off their federal tax bill.
In Ford City, residents inquired if TREK Development had considered a supermarket on the site and another concerned citizen was concerned with demolishing the historic school.
In an answer to Borough Councilwoman Kathy Bartuccio, the townhouses would meet or exceed handicapped-accessibility requirements.
Dialogue has also continued with State Senator Don White.
Ford City parking would commence in the alley – given developers predict each resident would not have more than one vehicle.
The Armstrong County Housing Authority currently manages Kittanning Cottages and Valley View Apartments TREK Development has developed.
The former schools were designated Keystone Opportunity Zones two years ago.
Officials from both communities heard details regarding the proposal a few weeks ago at the Armstrong County Courthouse.
Kittanning Borough Council President Kim Fox said she was “impressed” with TREK Development’s work at Kittanning Cottages – the former Indiana University of Pennsylvania satellite campus site – and would like to see new development despite sharing some concerns with residents.
“We all live here, work in this community, love this community and I want to see it thrive,” Fox said. “And I think some sort of residency there will make us thrive. I’m very concerned that if the building stays – and I love the school; I went to school there – a halfway house would come in or something undesirable and we wouldn’t have any control over it.”
Ford City Borough Council Vice-President Tyson Klukan will take community concerns in perspective before making a final determination.
“I think the citizens had a fair amount of concern for the old structure, but I think the citizen threw out fair questions that need to be answered that made me turn my head,” Klukan said. “This is in the infant stages, so you got to see how the community feels.”
He looked forward to more community meetings regarding this topic.
TREK Development has not made a formal presentation or purchase offer to Armstrong School District regarding either site since they still own the properties so no decisions have been made, though Gatti acknowledged some board members are aware of the possibility.
“If there’s general consensus around the idea, we are prepared to make a formal ask,” Gatti said.
Harley – who toured the schools while they were still in-use with Gatti – stressed both designs are not complete. The group began plans two or three years ago.
“This is a process – plans always get revised,” Harley said.
The trio was welcomed to Ford City by local resident Don Mains – the former U.S Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Development – with purple flowers from Marcia’s Garden prior to their presentation.
Following the Kittanning presentation, Ron Crytzer presented history regarding the front lawn in front of the historical museum – currently a parking lot beside Kittanning Junior High.