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McKees Rocks’ Miles Bryan School May Become Condos

Thursday, September 09, 2010
By Brian David, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Miles Bryan School building is beautiful in a way modern schools seldom are, with a Gothic flavor and spires and gargoyles carved into its stone.

It’s also in a beautiful spot, on six wooded acres atop a hill jutting up in the midst of McKees Rocks.

The 83-year-old former school has a spectacular view, with the Pittsburgh skyline floating above the treetops to the east and an overview of the town’s rolling hills.

And it boasts a unique bit of landscaping with its terraced levels and sweeping, 102-step grand staircase winding down the hill to Chartiers Avenue.

That’s the good. The bad is that Miles Bryan, vacant since 1997, has been targeted by vagrants and vandals and is marked by graffiti and broken glass.

It is in a struggling community where redevelopment is too often an underfunded dream. And with no one to do official maintenance, a handful of volunteers faces the task of keeping weeds and brush at bay on the grounds.

“I get poison ivy five times a summer up there,” said Taris Vrcek, director of the McKees Rocks Development Corp. and the chief maintenance volunteer.

Mr. Vrcek, however, hopes to put the Calamine lotion away for good in a few years. The CDC, which has an option on the property, is marketing it to developers, touting it as a site for 20 to 30 luxury loft condominiums.

“We see Miles Bryan as a viable and marketable property,” he said Tuesday. “We’re seeking a developer with the imagination to share our vision of what is possible.”

As part of that mission, the CDC on Friday hosted the second annual “Run Your Rox Off” 5K run/walk, which started and finished at Miles Bryan and included a community picnic and free concert.

Mr. Vrcek said the event raised roughly $2,000 for the CDC, but more importantly, it attracted between 300 and 400 to the site, including a high percentage of out-of-town runners.

“The fundraising is definitely secondary to raising awareness,” he said.

Miles Bryan was built in 1927 on an outcropping known as O’Donovan’s Hill, part of the landholdings of telegraph-operator-turned-merchant-banker Michael C. O’Donovan. It was named for a banker and politician who was also a scion of the family that built the Frank Bryan Inc. concrete company.

The building served as the high school for McKees Rocks children until 1966, when McKees Rocks and Stowe merged to form the Sto-Rox School District, then served as Sto-Rox Middle School for another 31 years.

Facing a steep renovation bill, the school district closed it in 1997 and sold it to a developer in 2001. The CDC holds an option with that developer.

Mr. Vrcek said he spent one year there, as a seventh-grader in 1981-82, but has “more memories from there than from anywhere else.”

He remembered the separate rooms for art, wood shop and music, the gym and auditorium and especially the trees.

“It was so easy to focus there; you had trees outside your window and not much else,” he said. “You felt removed from the world up there.”

He also remembered playing on the grounds before and after school, and the long walk up the hill from Chartiers Avenue, where children got off the buses. “It immediately promoted good health, making all the kids walk up that hill,” he said.

Mr. Vrcek said the classrooms are between 1,000 and 2,000 square feet with high ceilings and large windows and would convert easily to apartments. He said that eight of them would most likely boast the skyline view.

The gymnasium, he said, could be used for either sheltered parking or as a fitness center, and the auditorium could get windows and skylights and serve as an atrium-style gathering place or even as an indoor greenhouse/garden.

Mr. Vrcek also said the CDC is interested in keeping the grounds open to the public, while balancing that interest with the privacy and safety concerns of prospective owners.

Duquesne Light has been an active donor to CDC efforts, he said, and he is looking to the utility company’s Power to Light program to get some lighting on the grounds.

Mr. Vrcek said that Duquesne Light also is planning to do cleanup work in Third Street Park, which adjoins the Miles Bryan grounds, as a Day of Caring Project on Tuesday. The park has been closed since the mid-90s, and the CDC is hoping to find funding for new equipment and safety measures to get it open again.

“Talking to young people around here, I know that kids desperately want some decent park space, some decent green space,” he said.

Mr. Vrcek said the hope is to have a developer on board for the Miles Bryan project within 12 months. He is looking at a five-year time frame to have lofts on the market.

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