March 30, 2015
When Bridgeway Capital bought 7800 Susquehanna in 2013 for $1.25 million, the idea was that a vibrant 7800 could be a ladder on which to scaffold Homewood’s economic development.
“The goal with 7800 Susquehanna Street is that the economic activity generated by its renovation would benefit the surrounding community,” says Mark Peterson, president and CEO of Bridgeway. “The building represents a major opportunity to improve business conditions in one of the region’s most challenging markets,” he says.
With the help of the Richard King Mellon Foundation, Bridgeway got to work overhauling the massive 100,000-square-foot building—think 1.7 footballs fields of interior space—and its four-acre lot. Like any large project (the first phase cost $15 million), there were many choices to be made, such as which contractors to use.
Bridgeway worked to assemble a team of minority-owned contractor businesses.
“Pittsburgh is undoubtedly enjoying a development boom, but there are some serious concerns about the equity of this economic growth,” says Peterson.
The Urban Redevelopment Authority’s website states that it expects all contracts that exceed $250,000 “to achieve or exceed the goal of awarding 18 percent of the total project costs to MBEs (minority business enterprises).”
Bridgeway blew this 18 percent out of the water.
“With the first stage of renovations behind us, we’re proud to say that we have a team comprised of 85 percent minority contractors,” says Peterson. “It can be done—and it should be done more often.”
He adds that “most development projects have, at best, the opposite ratio.”
The lead contractor for phase one was Ma’at Construction Group. The Homewood-based employer started business in 1997 as “a direct response to double-digit unemployment rates” says T. Rashad Byrdsong, one of the company’s founders.
Ma’at trains, mentors and gives apprenticeships to men and women who are at risk—people who have been displaced, disadvantaged or incarcerated. “To help the community, help the community residents,” says T. Rashad Byrdsong. “We give training to give them the skills they need.”
Byrdsong believes that revitalization in Homewood needs to include grassroots economic development.
Ma’at—which means truth and justice in Egyptian—will call 7800 Susquehanna home. They will have a training center for individuals and educational opportunities for other minority-owned construction businesses. Byrdsong’s partner, Johnny Comer, says their space will “help other contractors from the Homewood area take better advantage of Pittsburgh’s building boom.”
Also housed in the former Westinghouse plant at 7800—which one Homewood native called his “Empire State Building”—are Urban Tree, artist Peter Johnson and Merissa Lombardo’s studio.
“This is not your typical tech incubator where the entrepreneurs are all on MacBooks making apps,” says Adam Kenney, communications and marketing director of Bridgeway. “Tenants are making real stuff and have real infrastructure needs.”
The entire top floor—all 20,010 square feet—is still available. Think of it as a giant, blank canvas with 20-foot high ceilings. Bridgeway is in the process of securing funding for the second phase of construction, which will include building out the first and second floors, an elevator installation and work to the parking lot.
In addition to makers, several tenants bring a social mission to 7800: The Trade Institute of Pittsburgh trains non-college bound individuals in the masonry trade, and Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh is a nonprofit that offers no-cost home repairs to low-income seniors in Allegheny County. There’s square footage for the Homewood Artist Residency program—and Bridgeway gifted 2,000 square feet to the Homewood Business Center and to a gallery for community events.
The project at 7800 Susquehanna embodies the philosophy “be the change that you want to see in the world”—and the change Bridgeway wants to see in Pittsburgh.