Braddock’s rebirth continues, thanks to a touch of love

Ohringer Arts Apartments opening soon in Braddock

by Rob Taylor Jr.
Courier Staff Writer

For the past six years or so, Gregg Kander has been using the expression, “You don’t know you’re in a bubble until you step out of it.”

The longtime attorney and investor told the New Pittsburgh Courier he had a great marriage to a Jewish woman, Ellen Kander, for 25 years, before she passed away in 2012 from cancer.

But how did life fare for him after her death? The first few years were hard. He told the Courier he had thoughts of not wanting to live; instead, wishing to spend his days up above with his beloved Ellen.

But Gregg Kander has three children. Three very important reasons to be here. He had to be here for them.

And as many in the historic, though sometimes-forgotten borough of Braddock would come to see, Kander later found other reasons for being.

THE UNEXPECTED MEETING

In October 2013, Kander decided to attend a local “Tickets For Kids” fundraiser at Heinz Hall. Tickets for Kids is a non-profit organization that provides free access for low-income and at-risk kids to attend the arts, cultural, educational, and athletic venues of their community. There, he saw what he called a “beautiful Black woman,” complete with “this glow about her.”
Only problem was, she was sitting with three other Black women. His nerves were starting to kick in. Could he really muster the courage to go and speak to her?

Yes, he did.

This “beautiful Black woman” turned out to be Anna E. Hollis, the executive director of Amachi Pittsburgh. The Amachi Initiative provides children impacted by incarceration with a different path by establishing the consistent presence of loving, caring mentors, its website said.

“She’s my fiancee now,” Kander, who is Jewish, proudly told the Courier.

The more time the two spent with each other, the more Kander began to see the world through Hollis’ eyes. “Everything that the world is learning now about systemic racism and mass incarceration,” Kander received those lessons years ago, he said.

Hollis’ brother is Rev. Tim Smith, the founder, president and executive director of the non-profit organization Center of Life, in Hazelwood. He’s also the pastor of the Keystone Church of Hazelwood. One day, Rev. Smith gave a sermon, heard by Kander, which stressed that the next time an opportunity arises to change the community, “don’t do what we always do and make excuses, just step up and do it. We’re here for a limited time, view it as a message from God to try to do something to make a change and make a difference.”

BECOMING PART OF BRADDOCK’S REBIRTH

In the following days, Kander got to work. He hooked up with then-Braddock mayor John Fetterman to financially invest into a fledgling concept for a restaurant, Superior Motors, which was the brainchild of a well-known chef, Kevin Sousa. Nothing deterred Kander from putting his money where his mouth was. Not when Fetterman, now Pa.’s Lt. Governor, stressed to Kander that the idea of a new sit-down restaurant in Braddock was “all about providing opportunities and jobs for the local people,” Kander said.

It’s exactly the alley Kander wanted to bark up.

“He acknowledges he’s not the greatest financial guy in the world, but he’s the greatest cook in the world,” Kander said of Sousa in an article published in the online publication, Eater, in June 2017. “I’m not the greatest cook in the world, but I’m good at putting deals together. And so we’re all just using that skills when we need ’em.”

The Superior Motors restaurant, nestled on the site of a former indoor car dealership at 1211 Braddock Ave., has been a resounding success. Not only did it put some Braddock residents to work, but it was named one of Time magazine’s “World’s Greatest Places” for 2018. A year prior, Food & Wine magazine called Superior Motors one of its “10 Restaurants of the Year.”
“If we were in Lawrenceville, we would have been just another restaurant,” Kander told the Courier in an exclusive interview, Feb. 17. But it was smack dab in Braddock, across the street from the unmissable Edgar Thompson Steel Works plant, the facility that exemplifies Braddock’s history and heritage.
“…If you gave people good jobs and good opportunities and good training,” Kander added, “they were then bringing that home to their family, and then their family was better off.”

Superior Motors is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s certain to reopen, Kander said, when the country hopefully rebounds from the coronavirus.

A VIEW OF THE SIGNATURE OHRINGER FURNITURE STORE SIGN, the building now converted into affordable housing apartments. (Photos by Courier photographer J.L. Martello)

OHRINGER ARTS APARTMENTS — AN ADDITION TO BRADDOCK’S REBIRTH

What will be opening soon, however, are the Ohringer Arts Apartments, featuring the much-anticipated migration of some of the Pittsburgh area’s finest artisans into one of Braddock’s most historic buildings.

And yes, Kander is behind this multi-million dollar project, too.

Kander said a few years ago, Fetterman, as Braddock mayor, asked him to “bring back the Ohringer Building,” which formerly was a popular furniture store that beamed eight stories tall along Braddock’s primary thoroughfare. “My goal was to give people the same experience that I had that breaks down barriers,” Kander told the Courier.

Kander was able to qualify the development for a number of tax credits, as the plan for the Ohringer Building, located at 640 Braddock Ave., was to transform the inside into 31 one-bedroom apartments and six studio apartments, primarily (but not exclusively) for artists. On July 30, 2019, local officials and community members witnessed the groundbreaking of the Ohringer transformation, officials like Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald with mallets in hand helping to break the wooden boards that covered the building’s first-floor windows.

Kander said the year-long renovations were to wrap up in June 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic had its own plans.

As the month of March nears, Kander was excited to report that almost all of the apartment units in the building were completed. There are still building inspections that must be done, along with obtaining the Temporary Certificate for Occupancy (TCO).

“This building is first-class. I would live in it in a heartbeat,” Kander said.

THE OHRINGER ARTS APARTMENTS in Braddock, where 37 residents will soon be moving, owner/ developer Gregg Kander said, in about four weeks.

And what about that view from atop the building? Kander’s crew spiced up the Ohringer’s rooftop deck. “I don’t think there’s a parallel view in the city,” he boasted. “People from Braddock have cried up there; just like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve never seen my town like this.’”

The Ohringer Arts Apartments, as they’ll be known, will also have communal studios in the basement, so artists can work on their crafts free of charge. There is a 2,000 square-foot area on street-level for retail space, but Kander said he is donating the space to the residents. “Do something great” with it for the Braddock community, was his message to the artists. “And they’re already coming up with great things.”

A VIEW FROM THE INSIDE OF THE OHRINGER ARTS APARTMENTS.

The Ohringer Arts Apartments are classified as “affordable housing,” which helped the development qualify for certain tax credits. Kander told the Courier that he’s received dozens of applications for the apartments, and most of the applications have been approved. But there is still a chance that someone (artists receive preference) can get approved for an apartment at Ohringer, by applying at: www.ohringerarts.com or emailing:
info@ohringerarts.com for more information. Residents must have an annual income between $20,000 and $35,000. Monthly rent prices range from $680 to $750, based on income.

OHRINGER ARTS APARTMENTS OWNER/DEVELOPER GREGG KANDER, on the roof of the building.

There has been a near-perfect ratio of Black and White applicants, Kander said, which was of vast importance to him.

“If these apartments ended up being 95 percent White, I failed. If they were 95 percent Black, I failed,” he said. Kander wants a “good mix of people that learn to live with each other, collaborate with each other and care about the community first. And as we develop this community, I want the people of the community to participate in the growth of the community.”

CREWS HAVE BEEN WORKING for nearly two years to convert the Ohringer Building in Braddock into apartments. The job is nearly complete. Pictured above is Darrel Strong. (Photos by Courier photographer J.L. Martello)

“The Ohringer Arts Project has been in the works for quite some time and I’m excited to see it prosper,” added current Braddock Mayor Chardae Jones, in a statement to the Courier, Feb. 22. “The apartments are beautiful and to see that building blossom is everyone’s hope. Gregg Kander saw a vision for the project and he’s seeing it through.”

The first residents should be moving in within the next four weeks, Kander said.

GREGG KANDER, right, with his fiancee, Anna E. Hollis, who is executive director of Amachi Pittsburgh. The two met during a Tickets For Kids fundraiser at Heinz Hall in October 2013. Kander is the developer and owner of the new Ohringer Arts Apartments, set to open in a few weeks in Braddock.

‘IT WOULD NOT HAVE HAPPENED WITHOUT HER’

Gregg Kander told the Courier that he decided to “broaden his horizons” when he felt it was time to see if his future included another outstanding woman.
He said he went to laundromats. Starbucks. Hot Yoga. Community events. Fundraisers. Any and everything, hoping to find that next great woman.
Little did he know, that woman would be African American. And so accomplished. And so full of wisdom and determination.

Little did he know that she would get him out of that “bubble,” that environment that he had lived in for decades, giving him just an outsider’s view of what life is like for many African Americans through no fault of their own.

Hollis, who grew up in Pittsburgh, has long been an advocate for change, especially pertaining to the penal system. She has been outspoken on how, oftentimes, laws are made that disproportionately incarcerate African Americans more than their White counterparts. She told the online publication Next Pittsburgh in 2018 that the best part of her job was “witnessing young people morph from being withdrawn and ashamed of their parents’ incarceration to bold, confident ambassadors for social and education justice.”
She also told the publication that her long-term mission for Amachi Pittsburgh was to “educate the community and especially policymakers about the plight and promise of children with incarcerated parents. They’re 100 percent innocent, by the way.”

Kander sure got educated, too, by Hollis. Over time, he’s visited local jails and talked to some incarcerated African Americans, hearing their stories firsthand. He told the Courier he’s able to see, for example, the African American stores that used to brighten East Liberty, only to see the gentrification work its “magic”—poof, most of them are now gone.

Little did Gregg Kander know that his life would change this much, and in his words, for the better, after meeting Hollis.

“The news shows you a ‘one percent’ and it doesn’t show you all the hard-working, churchgoing good (African American) people that are trying to get things done, without the preferences and privileges (that Caucasians have),” Kander told the Courier. “I learned through Anna that people with ‘arms behind their back’ are doing the best they can.”

The mostly-African American borough of Braddock, the town that is now down to just 2,000 people, a far cry from its heyday when 10 times as many people called Braddock home, is undergoing a transformation. A rebirth, one might say. Kander can honestly say that he’s part of that rebirth, but only thanks to this thing called the “journey of life,” a journey that led him to that “beautiful Black woman,” his new love of his life, Anna E. Hollis.

“She’s a superstar,” Kander said of Hollis. “It would not have happened without her.”

Comments

From the Web