The Bulletin: Penn Plaza Matters

Neighbors rally for East Liberty residents displaced by developers

Story by Jason Vrabel, Bulletin contributor

ABOVE: Former Penn Plaza resident Randall Taylor (right, holding microphone) speaks to local community members at a Mar. 19 rally in East liberty. Taylor and other members of the Penn Plaza Support & Action Coalition voiced concerns about the redevelopment plans for the gateway site at Penn & Negley Aves. Photo by Jason Vrabel.


East Liberty – More than a year after the city’s Planning Commission unanimously denied a redevelopment proposal for the former Penn Plaza apartment site, the public got its first full look at a revised plan during a public meeting at Eastminster Presbyterian Church on March 21 [Read accompanying article, “Plans for Penn Plaza debated at contentious community meeting,” on page 5 of the April 2018 Bulletin].
A 2017 Consent Order between the City, developer, and other entities officially put to rest a number of legal disputes between them, and established conditions to guide the redevelopment. But critics of the Order raise the issue that the revised plan leaves many social and economic concerns unresolved.
Pennley Park South, a subsidiary of LG Realty Advisors, the owner of the property, is the developer for the project. Envisioned in their revised proposal is a mix of high end office and retail space for the site that previously provided several hundred units of affordable housing.
According to documents furnished by the property owner, the estimated $150 million project will improve the urban realm, enhance Enright Parklet, provide a range of job opportunities, and reaffirm a “commitment to East Liberty and Fair and Affordable Housing.”
In February of 2017, a lack of community engagement was cited by the Planning Commission as a primary reason for denying the plan. The Consent Order sought to correct this, but stated that the first of two public meetings must be scheduled within ten days of a “determination of completeness” by the City’s planning department.
The meeting was announced on March 14, giving everyone less than a week to review Pennley Park South’s 84-page plan. This slim timeline actually emboldened the advocacy group, Penn Plaza Support & Action Coalition (PPSA), which encouraged its members to attend. In a written statement, PPSA deemed the rushed timetable “a violation of democratic public process.” Still, the organization managed to attract over 200 attendees to the March 21 meeting.
“LG Realty and the City have refused to engage the real community,” former Penn Plaza resident and PPSA member, Randall Taylor, said following a March 19 press conference in front of the empty Penn Plaza site. “The more you involve the community and former residents, the more opportunities you have to make sure that days like this don’t happen.”
PPSA objects to other aspects of the order, including tax incentives for high-end development in the rapidly gentrifying East Liberty neighborhood.
The site is within a Transit Revitalization Investment District (TRID) that will reduce Pennley Park South’s future tax obligations. As part of its settlement with the City, the developer agreed to use 50% of the tax break for infrastructure investments like new sidewalks & sewer lines. The remaining 50% will help fund improvements to Enright Park and the creation of a local housing fund.
According to the developer’s plan, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh has estimated that “Pennley Park South’s total pledge, upon completion of all phases of the Development, will amount to approximately $6 million of direct investment towards Enright Park and the [housing fund].”
Specifically, the plan states that the funds will “provide amenities such as (a) accessible roads and sidewalks, (b) bicycle enhancements, (c) community and recreational spaces; and most significantly (d) GAP Funding for Affordable Housing.”
The Order states that no housing will be built on site, and that replacement housing will be built “within one mile” of the intersection of Penn and Negley Aves. PPSA members argue that this distance will place people too far from job opportunities, public transportation hubs, and supermarkets.
The housing fund will target those earning 60-80% of the area median income ($817-$1,090 for a one-bedroom unit), which PPSA has stated will be far out of reach for low-income renters.
As Alethea “Lee” Sims, president of the Coalition of Organized Residents and another former Penn Plaza resident, said at PPSA’s press conference, “We need housing more than office. We need housing more than stores. We need places for people to live.”
PPSA members say that the Order was “negotiated behind closed doors” and, that by not including any representation for displaced residents, it sets a “dangerous precedent” for the city.
“It is okay for you to destroy a neighborhood’s affordable housing and create plans behind the community’s back,” PPSA member Dan Yablonsky said facetiously. “In fact, we will give you huge tax breaks – as long as you promise that, down the line, you use a portion of that tax break to fund housing in a different neighborhood, at costs that displaced residents can no longer afford,” he continued. “Pittsburgh deserves more.”
The group will use the Planning Commission Hearings to illuminate other aspects of the project that they deem unacceptable. The allocation of the housing funds will be determined by a “Housing Committee,” represented by the City and four community groups. PPSA sees this as part of an ongoing exclusion of former tenants, and has demanded that the committee add representation for displaced residents.
However, Taylor said that the future elements of the plan are not his primary concern right now. “We intend to stop their plan, so that stops all of that. I think we’re going to stop this plan.”
As per the Order, “All parties shall respond to issues raised [in] the first meeting at the second meeting.” On Monday, Apr. 16, the second community meeting will begin at 6 p.m. at Eastminster Presbyterian Church (250 N. Highland Ave.); it is open to the public.

The Bulletin: “Vacants” in Garfield

Vacant, abandoned houses continue to dog Garfield neighborhood

Story by Joe Reuben, Bulletin contributor

Garfield – While many would say that conditions in the neighborhood have improved dramatically in recent years, Garfield remains saddled with a large inventory of vacant, seemingly abandoned houses. According to Rick Swartz, the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation’s (BGC) executive director, his organization’s staff recently conducted a survey of most of the neighborhood’s streets, and it revealed at least 131 empty houses, many of them in deplorable condition.
“There were more ‘vacants’ than what we were expecting to find,” Swartz told The Bulletin. “While a number of them have been in that condition for a decade or longer, it’s alarming to find others that may have joined the list only within the past five years.”
Swartz pointed to four houses, all within two blocks of Penn Ave., that illustrate the plight the neighborhood faces when trying to eliminate the blight and potential danger such properties pose to neighbors. A single-family home at 5010 Dearborn St., owned by David and Marcia Grenick, is on the BGC’s list. Public records show reveal that the Grenicks use an address in McKees Rocks for receipt of their county tax bills, but evidently stopped paying years ago.
“The county has scheduled the property for Sheriff’s Sale on March 5th to try to recover over $18,000 in delinquent real estate taxes owed to the county, city, and school district,” Swartz noted. “Even if someone were to bid to buy the property, the deed they’d receive from the Sheriff’s office may not give them a clear title. There could well be thousands of dollars in liens owed to other parties who may still expect payment.”
He went on to say that, even if a private party were to pay $30,000 or $40,000 in the end to secure clear title, the house at 5010 Dearborn may need anywhere from $75,000 to $150,000 to make it a desirable place to live once again.
“That’s where the risk of gentrification comes into play, because a private investor will want to push the future re-sale price for the property as high as he or she can, in the expectation of making a profit of 10 to 20%, or more, after the renovations have been done,” Swartz contended. “That price could be double the price of what any other property in the block has sold for previously.”
The city has tried to contain the spread of blight in neighborhoods like Garfield by coming after tax-delinquent owners of vacant properties, he explained. The Urban Redevelopment Authority offers to “tag” such properties, if the community group so desires.
When they are tagged by the URA, the city must then decide if a public sale is warranted. If it agrees, then the property goes to what is known as “Treasurer’s Sale,” an auction held in City Council chambers once or twice per year; the next one is set for August. However, as Swartz cautioned, this may not be the solution to eliminating blight.
“On our list of vacant houses, there are eleven that the city took either at our request or the URA’s”, he disclosed. “But, it takes the better part of two years before the process of public taking has run its course. In the meantime, the property could fall victim to the elements and become so dilapidated that the chances of renovation become practically nil.”
Swartz pointed to three vacant houses situated at 4911, 5137, and 5349 Broad St. “We’ve seen the interiors of 5137 and 5349 Broad. To restore either of these homes could well cost $200,000 or more. If we were to take on either project, the subsidy we would need to make them affordable – for purchase by someone earning under, say, $50,000 a year – would be in the vicinity of $100,000. The U.R.A. does not have that subsidy to give to us or anyone else at this point in time.”
Ultimately, unless there are private investors who are willing to spend the necessary money on renovations, and then attempt to sell them for $250,000 or more, he said, what may happen is that all three homes will have to face the wrecking ball. Demolishing the structures would result in vacant lots. Even if a neighboring owner wanted to buy the property from the city, they might have to wait a year or longer to finalize the sale; “not exactly an encouraging prospect,” he added.
Although Mayor Bill Peduto promised late last year that a “land bank” would be operational by early spring of 2018, the city’s efforts to start the land bank have been stalled for almost four years. Proponents see the land bank as a mechanism to move vacant, abandoned properties that the city has already acquired in a much more expeditious fashion than the otherwise lengthy disposition process.
Swartz said the “jury is still out” on whether the land bank will fulfill those hopes, but acknowledged that a more effective land banking process could spell the difference between salvaging abandoned & foreclosed properties, and losing them forever.
He relayed that it is up to the BGC’s housing and land use committee, which is open to anyone who wants to help attack problems like these, to determine whether or not to try and acquire eight to ten of the most salvageable houses.
To obtain a copy of the BGC’s list of vacant houses, contact Tyler Wheeler at Tyler@bloomfield-garfield.org. To join the housing and land use committee, contact Nina Gibbs at Nina@bloomfield-garfield.org.

The Bulletin: Remembering Carol Peterson

Remembering Carol Peterson: friends celebrate life of local historian, rabble-rouser, underdog champion

Story by Kitty Julian, Bulletin contributor

Lawrenceville – On Dec. 17, Carol Peterson, a Pittsburgh icon who dedicated her life to preserving the city’s architectural history, died at age 58 after a seven-year struggle with cancer.

A fierce advocate for social justice and animal rights, Peterson is remembered for her lasting contributions to local understandings of “place” and history. Some readers may also recognize her as the co-author of “Allegheny City,” the book she wrote with Dan Rooney about his old stomping grounds.

An active member of the City’s Historic Review Commission, Peterson deployed her encyclopedic knowledge of zoning law to argue against the potential demolition of, or any character-changing renovations to, historic properties all across the city. Some folks know her as an audience member at local shows; right where illness would have knocked down a less stubborn individual, she stood in the mosh pit.

As the Internet came into being, Peterson adapted to the changing communicative environment with aplomb. She navigated the NeverTellMeTheOdds.org message board – a local, punk-rock hub for wisecracks and “constructive dissent” – to connect new residents with hidden histories.

No matter how one might have known the local historian, they would always recognize her as a champion of the underdog. Peterson organized protests to halt the demolition of historic smokestacks at the Iron City Brew Works on Liberty Ave. Writing for the  Pittsburgh City Paper, she rallied awareness about the unhelpful practices of the Susan B. Komen Foundation.

The woman had real vision; she thought the homes of ordinary working people were worth saving, too, and that local preservation acts could be applied beyond the borders of the city’s “mansion-scapes.” Appreciation of the city’s rich architectural history was not, she believed, a practice reserved for the Mellons and the Fricks of the world.

Peterson purchased, rehabilitated, and sold at least twelve houses that others might have demolished. She turned each into cozy, welcoming homes – with their historic character intact [see image above].

Many others know her as the person who wrote a “Pittsburgh House History” for their properties. Peterson wrote an incredible 1,940 property histories during her lifetime; each document’s origins involved painstaking research to track down the properties’ purchase history through the County Recorder of Deeds office.

The historian added color and life to each home’s biography with maps, newspaper articles about the original owners, and historic photos she discovered on microfilm at various Carnegie Library branches.

Fueled by her incredible devotion to preservation and grassroots activism, Peterson helped found Lawrenceville Stakeholders in the early 2000s. The organization continues to advocate for reasonable development while working to stem the tide of “house flipping,” a familiar scourge that destroys neighborhood character by exploiting low-income and older residents.

Despite her wide-ranging interests, Peterson always saved her deepest care and concern for the friends she loved. This wide-ranging, colorful circle of people loved her back and rallied around her, taking care of her with increasing urgency and devotion over the final few years of her life.

When she died at home on Dec. 17, Peterson was surrounded by friends who had prepared her meals; brought her the IPA beers she loved; helped her complete house history research; cared for her beloved orange tabby cat, Wee-Bey; and took her on “bucket list” trips.

On Jan. 26, that circle and dozens more gathered in Lawrenceville to celebrate her life at Spirit (242 51st St.) – a venue where Peterson had enjoyed performances by musicians like queer icon Big Freedia, the veritable “queen of bounce.” Many toasts were raised to the local rabble-rouser who defied the odds, and outlasted her cancer years longer than expected, to leave an indelible mark on the city she loved.

Donations are being directed to two organizations that Peterson loved: “Lawrenceville Stakeholders, c/o 187 43rd St., PGH, PA 15201” and “Preservation Pittsburgh, 1501 Reedsdale St., Suite 5003, PGH, PA 15233.”

Read more stories from the February 2018 Bulletin (Vol. 43, No. 2) here!

 

The Bulletin – Neighborhood Focus – January 2018

Friendship Perk & Brew unlocks new potential

Story by Andrew McKeon, the Bulletin
ABOVE: Nick Redondo (right) enjoys a “Kodak moment” with friends and family at his new eatery, Friendship Perk & Brew (300 S. Pacific Ave.). Photo by Andrew McKeon.

Friendship – A few decades ago, when Nick Redondo worked for US Air, Pittsburgh’s one-way departures far outnumbered its new arrivals.

And now that his hometown has become a destination city, Redondo thinks residents old and new are thirsty for change – and for coffee and beer. His approach to quenching this new thirst: “Friendship Perk & Brew.”

Punctuated by old, black & white photographs, with a fireplace to take the chill out of a cold winter morning, the neighborhood eatery captures the high-contrast history of its namesake while also accommodating new palettes and tastes. Patrons can order a craft beer just as easily as they would a cup of coffee – or enjoy a variety of hot sandwiches, appetizers, and gelato.

Redondo and his sister/co-founder, Joanne, curated the store’s atmosphere and menu by simply polling their neighbors.

“I’ve been soliciting my neighbors, asking them what they’d like to see or eat here. They’ve had a lot of input,” he said. “Even the folks who were opposed to it…once they finally come in and see what we’ve done with the place, they’re impressed and they keep coming back.”

Friendship Perk & Brew feels like a hub of old and new energies situated at 300 S. Pacific Ave. In the months since he opened up shop in September, Redondo has reconnected with a number of old friends and made many new acquaintances.

“When you go into a Starbuck’s, it’s all about Starbucks. Here, it’s about the neighbors,” he explained. “Nothing against Starbucks. I mean, they’ve been much more successful than I have, so I’ve got to give them credit.”

Redondo is fond of relaying local histories, telling the stories behind the street signs; mere minutes into a conversation with the Bulletin, he went “full oracle” and detailed a list of famous Friendship residents and local landmarks.

Zoned for commerce ever since it was constructed in the 1920s, the Perk & Brew building remains an outlier in the residential neighborhood of Friendship. Growing up across the street, Redondo spent his days hunting for pop bottles in the alley; returning enough bottles earned him candy or toys from the neighborhood store.

He even got his first job there, sweeping floors as a kid. So, it comes as no surprise that he chose to staff his eatery with area residents.

The building, which has been in Redondo’s family for decades, once housed a 7-11, and was most recently operated as a convenience store that sold six packs of beer. Upon meeting with angry neighbors and representatives from local community groups, who viewed the store as a “nuisance bar,” Redondo decided not to renew the previous tenant’s lease. “I wasn’t happy with the way it was being run,” he said. “A convenience store just didn’t suit the needs of our neighbors.”

While the first-time entrepreneur endeavored to cut through all the red tape involved in rehabilitating an old structure for modern commercial use, the property laid fallow for years. Now that Redondo has unlocked its potential, he is figuring out how to turn the eatery into a valuable community asset.

The ideas often come to him in serendipitous ways – like when a West Penn Hospital employee stops by for a chat and, as a result, Redondo has begun looking at hosting an indoor Bocce tournament at his establishment.

Mike Pochan, who met Redondo in 1977 (when they were freshman at Carnegie Mellon University), did not reconnect with his college chum until recently, when they bumped into each other at Friendship Perk & Brew.

Now, Pochan regularly drives in from the suburbs to loaf on S. Pacific Ave. He feels very comfortable there: “If it’s too snowy outside to drive home, or if it’s too late and I’m tired, I could always just sleep on that couch over there. Right, Nick?”

Redondo said he does not worry when Pittsburghers move away to other neighborhoods and cities because he knows that they will be back. And, when they return, new places like the Perk & Brew will remind them of home.

“What it’s about is community,” Redondo said. “It’s about Friendship.” The Friendship Perk & Brew is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday; and 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

The Bulletin – Neighborhood Focus – August 2017

East End Fruit Cart brings fresh food to underserved neighbors

Story by Andrew McKeon, the Bulletin

ABOVE: At the East End Fruit Cart in Mellon Park, Jamel Haden (left) helps customers like Lando DePaulo – and his dog Lemmy – find the right fruit on a breezy July day. Haden and his two teenage co-workers use the mobile cart to bring fresh fruit to underserved neighborhoods throughout the city’s East End. Follow the East End Fruit Cart story below. Photo by John Colombo.


East End – Last year, when Tim Lydon returned to his hometown of Pittsburgh after spending many moons living and working on farms out West, he could tell the city had serious issues with food. Not the kind of food issues we often hear about (i.e. “Breaking News: Pittsburgh loves pierogies”), but the kind that many local residents seldom even notice (i.e. food scarcity in underserved neighborhoods).

“I’m really interested in issues of food scarcity and availability here in Pittsburgh. In the East End, there are plenty of places where people have no access to fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Drawing on his understanding of the politics of food, Lydon decided that he could really make an impact by simply bringing fresh food to the people, in their neighborhoods.

So, he created the East End Fruit Cart, a mobile fruit stand that he tows all over the city’s East End. Alongside three teenagers who run the fruit sales, Lydon posts up at a different public venue every day – from Monday through Saturday – to engage in a new kind of community outreach.

Created by a local artist, the cart and its cantilevered drapes are fairly impressive. But, the cart itself – and even the fruit – is only part of the story. What is most impressive is the intentional commerce that is at the heart of the project. On July 24,  the Bulletin visited the fruit cart under Mellon Park’s canopy shade, near the intersection of Fifth and Penn Aves.

“We’re in Homewood and we’re in Larimer, both places that have traditionally been considered ‘food deserts,’” Lydon explained. “We’re also in Oakland, which people might not think of as a food desert. Outside of the farmers markets, there’s nowhere to buy produce in Oakland.”

In response to a question from intrepid Bulletin photographer John Colombo (“Why don’t you take the cart to local farmers markets?”), Lydon replied that he did not want to cut into any other vendor’s profits. Since the fruit cart sources its goods from local grocery stores, he said, it would be unfair to vend at farmers markets, where most vendors sell their own farm-sourced products to make a living.

When looking for funding, he sought counsel from the BGC’s Rick Flanagan, Youth Development Director, and Rick Swartz, Executive Director. Lydon was eventually able to secure “Community Development Block Grant” monies, along with some fruit donations from Trader Joe’s and a cooler from the East End Food Co-Op.

“We just got $1,000 from Eat n’ Park yesterday,” he said. “Then, there is Bridgeway Capital, which is a nonprofit lending institution that has a department devoted to issues of food scarcity. We’re meeting with them next week.”

ABOVE: Tim Lydon (left) and Jamel Haden juggle fruit and responsibilities at the East End Fruit Cart in Mellon Park. Bringing fresh fruit to underserved neighborhoods, the fruit cart project seeks to address local issues of food scarcity. Photo by John Colombo.


With the grant money on its way, the project vision called for a six-week timeline. Since Lydon could not wait any longer, he took it upon himself to kick-start the fruit cart funding.

“Most of the money still hasn’t come through yet, but I knew this project had to start on June 26. So, I just bought everything on my own credit cards,” he said with a pause. “You could say I’m pretty committed to it.”

Local teenager Jamel Haden, a former Learn & Earn program participant and current BGC employee, works with Lydon to gather data on all the fruit sales. He even learned something about his own palette. “I’d never eaten Kiwi before, but I like it now,” Haden revealed. “I thought it was bitter until I first tried it.”

He asks customers what they think about things like a “fair price” for plums (the cart’s best-seller), then enters that information into a tablet, using Square technology to track spending patterns and what fruit sells best at each location.

“One thing we’ve found is that there has to be an educational component, because people need to know how to prepare fruits and vegetables,” Lydon said. “We need to team up with someone who can teach others how to make healthier choices.”

As part of the project’s social element, Haden and his teenage coworkers at the East End Fruit Cart sat down with representatives from 1Hood, a social justice organization that uses art to raise awareness and mentor young Pittsburghers.

“[1Hood founder] Jasiri X made a real impression on the kids,” Lydon said. “One of them has already applied for an internship [at 1Hood]. You know, it’s important for the kids to meet community leaders who look like them.”

The project’s ultimate goal is to form inroads with local residents and build a network of community supported agriculture (CSA). Lydon believes this idea could create more of a laser-sharp focus on bringing food to neighborhoods that do not have access to fresh foods

“We could identify a neighborhood – for example, Homewood or Lincoln-Lemington or Larimer – and then find kids from that neighborhood to be neighborhood ambassadors,” he explained. “They’d literally be going door-to-door to ask their neighbors if they want to order fresh fruits and vegetables. So, it would be like a CSA program run by kids in each neighborhood.”

Learn more about the cart and its mobile mission to bring fresh food to East Enders at www.eastendfruitcart.com.

Click here for more stories from the August issue of the Bulletin (Vol. 42, No. 8)

 

Multiple Job Offerings

NOW HIRING!!!

Please consider the following job opportunities:

1) Immediate openings – Positions at the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation’s afterschool program at Pittsburgh Arsenal and Pittsburgh Woolslair. Up to $15 an hour depending on experience.

2) Immediate opening– Manage the Neighborhood Learning Alliance’s  “Everyone Graduates” high school program. Hourly rate of $16 to $20 an hour.

3) Anticipated March opening – Eastside Neighborhood Employment Center is seeking multiple individuals to assist with recruiting 14 to 21 year olds for the “Pittsburgh Summer Learn and Earn” employment program. Positions could lead to full time work throughout the summer. Openings in the West End and East End of Pittsburgh are anticipated.

4) Summer openings – The Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation is seeking to identify as many as 5 workers that would operate its Learn and Earn Summer youth employment program.

5) Immediate opening – Garfield Jubilee Association is seeking a “Youthbuild Education Project Leader.” See the attached job description.

6) May opening – Earthen Vessels Outreach is seeking a Summer Food Program Manager. Looking to hire someone who could be a long-term hire, but for summers only.

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT EACH OF THESE OPPORTUNITIES, FOLLOW THIS LINK:  NOW HIRING!!!