"This is in my blood," says Picker, president of no wall productions inc., as she walks through a dusty, noisy corridor of the so-called "China Chef" building, a deep and narrow sliver building on Liberty Avenue that she is renovating for loft apartments and street-level retail space.
"Demanding work, a moment of vision and the rest is detail," is how Picker describes it, but for her, it appears to be a labor of love that will produce somewhere between $4 million and $5 million in construction starts for her company this year.
"I love buildings and I love cities and I'm not really interested in suburban development. I want to do projects that make a difference in the city," Picker says, who took an interest in revamping Downtown buildings for residential living in the mid-'90s.
She was born in Australia and trained as an architect there. After attending Columbia University to get a master's in urban design as a Fulbright scholar, she came to Pittsburgh in 1982 so her husband could take a visiting fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh.
He ended up staying at Pitt, and Picker worked for a time for an architectural firm and in the city's planning department as an urban designer. She got involved with the Friendship Development Association, a nonprofit neighborhood group where she helped out with a couple of projects, then got the bug to strike out on her own.
Her first project, the FirstSide Lofts at 492 First Ave., an old paper warehouse, was completed in 1997 and won a City of Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission Award. Now, she's juggling several projects, including the 25,000-square-foot Liberty Bank Building in East Liberty, condominiums in Brighton Heights and new construction at a site next door to her headquarters, the Bruno Building, another winner of the Historic Review Commission Award.
Picker's efforts have earned notice outside the city, as well. She is finalizing a contract to serve as the local development consultant on the Armstrong Cork Factory, a 300-apartment development in the Strip District, and is getting calls from out-of-town groups looking for help in getting similar efforts started in their cities.
"The most interesting skill I think I have is the financing, the partnerships, and understanding how to eke the most out of the money that's available," says Picker.
The urban landscape
Post World War II urban redevelopment often took a bulldoze-and-build approach, leveling city blocks of aged commercial and residential buildings to make way for large-scale projects aimed at creating the city of the future. The Gateway Center project, begun in the 1950s, started a beautification of Downtown that continued well into the 1980s, and it would be hard to argue the city isn't better for it.
Other projects left scars that remain today. The Civic Arena, now the Mellon Arena, cleared the better part of the Lower Hill District and displaced thousands of residents and shopkeepers, severely disrupting a thriving African-American community.
Ironically, there is now a move afoot by preservationists to save the Mellon Arena from the wrecking ball. With groups like the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation supporting preservation rather than eradication, old buildings are finding new life.
With lots of old industrial-era buildings available Downtown and in neighborhoods close to the Golden Triangle, developers like Picker should find the urban landscape a friendly place to practice their craft if they have the patience and perseverance to work through the details and clear the hurdles these projects can pose long before a carpenter picks up a hammer.
The biggest obstacle?
"It's hard to make the numbers pencil out," says Picker. "The biggest obstacle is financing, no doubt."
Construction costs, she says, are about the same in Pittsburgh as anywhere else, but low rents make the equation much harder to balance here than in cities where rental rates aren't as soft. Acquisition and construction costs might run $2 million for a property, yet the maximum conventional financing for the project might be half that amount.
And lots of housing stock available at reasonable prices in neighborhoods close to the city don't make Downtown lofts any more attractive at rents that run from $1,200 to $2,000 a month. With plenty of $50,000 houses available in Lawrenceville, says Picker, people want to own if they're faced with shelling out $1,000 a month for housing.
Because it's tough to put together financial packages as straight business deals that show a positive cash flow, renovation projects usually end up as patchworks of public and private participation with tax credits, money from special purpose funds like façade restoration programs and creative partnerships. Picker says that while some critics bash public involvement in private efforts to renovate city buildings, the projects have little chance of getting done without it.
Old buildings that don't meet building codes or Americans With Disabilities Act requirements might end up as surface parking lots instead of vibrant, attractive real estate.
"There will continue to have to be city or URA involvement and alternative funding. That makes it pretty complex and challenging, pretty scary," says Picker.
She offers the Liberty Bank Building project as an example of how complicated the projects can get. Picker persuaded the contractor, TEDCO Construction, and the architect, EDGE Studios, to join her as partners in the deal, so there were legal issues involved in forming the partnership.
They pursued historic preservation tax credits, which required creating a limited partnership. The Urban Redevelopment Authority agreed to do the required environmental remediation, but the URA had to go to the state for grant funds to finance it. Securing the historic tax credits requires a two-step application process to the state Historic Preservation Office, which has to give its approval for the plan for the building and inspect it once it's complete.
They've also gone after URA façade restoration money, but the URA's requirements are in some conflict with the state Historic Preservation Office's guidelines, so they'll have to reconcile the differences to get both the tax credit and the façade money.
The East Liberty Community Development Corp. has agreed to rent space for its offices and is looking for grant money for the build-out. The building is in a Keystone Opportunity Zone, a designation that allows businesses that decide to locate within it to avoid certain taxes for up to 10 years.
The KOZ credits impact different businesses in different ways, so Picker and her partners have developed an accounting tool that helps prospective tenants calculate what effect the designation will have on their business.
Picker cobbles together the intricate details of her deals in large part with the help of a relatively tight circle of associates, including the EDGE Studio. She uses the same carpenter on every project, for instance, and relies on a small cadre of subcontractors to do the work.
"In large part, my business depends on relationships," says Picker. "I like working with smaller (businesses). Dollar Bank has been great to me. I think that larger banks have a tougher time dealing with these projects."
Staying engaged for Picker, it seems, means staying on the move. She has a number of potential projects in the works, and dabbles in other businesses, like an ice cream cart she operates in a Downtown building during the summer.
She's turning the first floor of her headquarters building into a meeting facility, complete with high-speed telecommunications connections, and is in discussions with a retailer to move into another street-level space. And she's mulling over responding to an RFP for the Fifth & Forbes retail corridor development, currently in its third iteration.
"I love change, so I'm always looking for something different," says Picker. "I get bored if I stay in one place too long." How to reach: no wall productions inc., www.nowall.com; Urban Redevelopment Authority, www.ura.org