It’s obvious residents in the Hill District don’t like surprises.
The storied Hill House building, known as a landmark in the Hill District, is one of four buildings that the Hill House Association owns that its Board of Directors has proposed to sell to a private company.
And the vast majority of the residents in the community didn’t know the board was in talks to sell four of its seven buildings, until it was pretty much a done deal.
“I think that it did come as a surprise…and the fact that our church is literally across the street and we have not received one phone call, one letter, nothing at all about this transaction,” said Rev. Vincent Campbell, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Hill District.
The Hill House Association informed residents with just one day advance notice of an open meeting set for Tuesday, Aug. 28, at the Blakey Center on Wylie Avenue. Shortly after the invitation was made public, rumors on social media circulated that the Hill House could be closing its doors. The next day, the nearly-200 people who attended the open meeting at the Blakey Center on Wylie Avenue, Aug. 28, heard the news firsthand from Hill House Association board president Emma Lucas-Darby and interim executive director Pete Mendes—due to “dire financial problems,” the Hill House Association Board plans to sell its main building on Centre Avenue, the building where Family Dollar is housed on Centre, the Blakey Center, and One Hope Square (also on Centre). The board has agreed to sell the four physical properties to Omicelo, LLC, an investment firm and private developer led by Joshua Pollard, an African American with roots in Pittsburgh and a current Hill District resident. The Hill House Association would receive $4-6 million once the sale is completed, hopefully by the end of September according to the board. If the sale is completed, Mendes told the Courier the Hill House Association would still be $1.5-2 million in debt, and “we are working on ways to reduce or eliminate” that debt, he said. “We need support from the foundation community.”
Residents were, for the most part, furious with the Hill House Association board for not holding public meetings in the months prior to their coming to the decision to sell the properties. Lucas-Darby told the audience that the board worked from the later months of 2017 and into the first part of 2018 to determine strategies to reduce the debt. Selling off buildings was the best route to go, she said. The decision was made by both the Hill House Association board of directors and the Hill House Economic Development Corporation.
“In the end, we do feel these are the best decisions for the Hill House Association,” Lucas-Darby said.
The finances gathered from the potential sale will allow the Hill House Association to keep its signature programs geared toward senior services, community engagement and arts and entertainment.
City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle then addressed the crowd, revealing that he and state Rep. Jake Wheatley learned about the Hill House Association’s alleged decision on Monday, Aug. 27, the day before the meeting, just like everyone else. “We’ve been on the phone, Mr. Wheatley and myself, starting yesterday, calling the foundation community, looking to see how much money we could raise in two to three days to actually stave this off from actually happening,” Councilman Lavelle said. “The collective ask to the board tomorrow, is to do nothing, allow us an opportunity to raise the cash to keep them afloat for a period of up to six months, so we can work our ways collectively through this process. This is not to knock Mr. Pollard…he raised his hand (to the Hill House Association) and said, ‘I’m willing to help.’ The problem is, none of us were also given the chance to say, ‘Here’s how we can help.’”
Councilman Lavelle wants the board to delay the sale of the properties. It wasn’t unclear at press time if the Hill House Association board would grant that request.
Pollard spoke proudly to the crowd about his roots in Pittsburgh—growing up in the Rankin/Braddock area, going to school in the Woodland Hills School District, spending his last two years of high school at Sewickley Academy (graduating in 2001), and then after stints in college and living in New York City, he returned home to Pittsburgh in 2014.
His company, Omicelo, LLC, is geared toward purchasing real estate properties and, in many cases, re-establishing them to become an even more productive vehicle in African American communities. “For the grand majority, there is absolutely going to be no change in terms of what happens in Hill House Main,” and other properties. “In fact, we actually expect the services being provided by those organizations that are currently referred to as the Hill House Campus Partners, actually having the opportunity to improve,” Pollard said.
The Family Dollar store is under contract to remain at the location for the coming years unless they decide to move.
Pollard plans to add tenants to the Blakey Center and One Hope Square. The Hill House main building will remain open, Pollard said.
But the crowd was skeptical of Pollard and his motives. Omicelo is a private company that’s for-profit, while the Hill House Association is a nonprofit. Residents pressed Pollard on his true motives—would he keep the Black community’s best interest at heart in his dealings with the new buildings? Who are the investors that are part of his firm? Are the investors looking to, one day, make the Hill House main building and other properties into high-priced apartments or businesses that aren’t geared toward the Hill District’s iconic status as an African American community?
Some of the skepticism turned into disbelief when Pollard revealed that one of his investors was UPMC. K. Chase Patterson, CEO of the Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh charter school, then pointed out that there were board members of the Hill House Association who are also affiliated with the hospital giant.
Still, others came to Pollard’s defense, such as well-known judge Oscar Petite Jr. “He’s a man of good character, he’s a man that’s a Christian, and that he’s an honest person,” Petite said of Pollard. “As a matter of fact, he’s my next-door neighbor right across the street…I know his intentions are pure, and I know there’s no hidden agenda with Josh. And Josh is the only one who stepped up and put his money on the line, according to what we heard today.”
In fact, Mendes told the Courier in an exclusive interview that the Hill House Association did go to “numerous” foundations for financial support, but the total sum “just wasn’t enough.” Mendes did not disclose which foundations the Hill House Association board went to for financial support.
As it stands now, the sale of the four buildings is not 100 percent final. But the board did acknowledge that they need “millions of dollars” within the next few days, or they would go ahead with the sale to Omicelo.
Still, many residents felt like they were left out of the process of the fate of their famed Hill House. “There was no communication,” Rev. Campbell told the Courier, “and it’s not unreasonable for people to want information about this…this is going to have a huge impact on the services that can be provided to the poor, the disenfranchised, the least of these in the Hill District.”
Lucas-Darby made it clear the Hill House Association will continue, but with “some changes.
“It was a very difficult decision for the board of the Hill House to make,” she said, “but it was made with deliberate consideration, with judicious thinking and considering all of the facts in that were involved. In the end, we had to make a decision that was so tough, but what was best for the Hill House.”
Follow @NewPghCourier on Twitter https://twitter.com/NewPghCourier