The Business and Investment Guide to Friendship
Like many up-and-coming East End neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, Friendship wasn’t on the radar screen of most developers just a decade ago. But today it’s well on its way to becoming one of Pittsburgh’s most creative, multi-cultural destinations.
These days, the neighborhood’s northern border of Penn Avenue – its main commercial district – is dotted with galleries featuring the work of a variety of artisans. It may not yet have ripened to its full potential, but a joint effort between the community development organizations in Friendship and Bloomfield and Garfield has sparked a turnaround in what was once a struggling corridor.
“Through the implementation of a strong development strategy, Friendship has grown into a vivacious, thriving community,” notes Friendship Development Associates' Becky Mingo, now a real estate development specialist who until recently served as executive director.
“Penn Avenue was something we saw that really needed help,” says Marc Mondor, an architect who is a member of the FDA board. The idea, he says, was to give it its own identity and in the process make it safe.
As the group developed a community plan, it was clear that the street should be the focus for their efforts. In 1988, The Penn Avenue Arts Initiative, a joint project of the FDA and the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, was initiatied to navigate the area’s revitalization through the arts.
The FDA, which has been the primary engine for much of the neighborhood’s economic development to this point, has been responsible for constructing 29,135 square feet of commercial space with several more projects in the works that will dramatically increase the square footage available for commercial ventures. In fact, the FDA’s wide array of contributions to the neighborhood’s renewal reads like an overly ambitious to-do list
“FDA has built quality affordable housing, built new locations for businesses, helped artists find homes, studios and business locations, fundamentally changed the Friendship housing market, supported the growth of some of the best arts organizations in the City, saved buildings from demolition, completed community plans, and closed nuisance bars,” Mingo says.
Most of the businesses that have been drawn in by the neighborhood’s energy and potential thus far have skewed to the creative side of the scale. That was the strategy from the start, to see how the arts could transform a neighborhood. To that end, the PAAI has converted over 136,000 square feet of vacant property into artist live/work space and nearly $8 million has gone into private arts-related investment on the Avenue. 16 artist owners and 43 artist renters make their home on Penn Avenue, which amounts to over 300 artists living and working on Penn Avenue each day.
Laura Jean McLaughlin, owner of the Clay Penn where she makes and sells her ceramic artwork, met FDA's recently appointed Executive Director Jeffrey Dorsey at a 2002 panel discussion on arts-related jobs; shortly after, he found a building that was a perfect fit for her needs.
The building she bought had an empty lot next door, which would allow her to create a mural on the side, she says. “I had been working in a basement studio, so the first floor of the building seemed to be perfect for a studio and a gallery space, and the price was right.”
McLaughlin is also one of the many artists who have received assistance from the PAAI Artist Loan and Grant program, which offers low-interest loans to artists for improvements to interior space and matching grants for façade renovations.
“The PAAI artist loan program came to my rescue a couple of times,” says McLaughlin, noting that she received funding to pay for the building’s windows and final renovations that allowed tenants to move into the second and third stories, as well as money to create the building’s unique mosaic external décor, which was completed in part by attendees of the PAAI’s monthly showcase event, Unblurred.
“I cannot rave enough about the support that they have provided and continue to provide,” McLaughlin adds.
Architecture and Architects
In addition to the numerous artists who have set up shop on Penn Avenue, Friendship features what is probably the densest concentration of architects in Pittsburgh outside of the Golden Triangle, with established firms like EDGE Studio, Loysen and Kreuthmeier and evolve, along with one-person shops set up in home offices or smaller studio space.
A healthy mix of businesses is a must for any neighborhood to thrive, and there are more than enough opportunities along Penn Avenue for aspiring retailers, service providers and restaurateurs.
Architect Doug Cruze and his wife Liza bought a building on the eastern end of Penn Avenue which, when completed, will feature all of the development opportunities that Friendship has to offer, both commercial and residential, in one place. The Cruzes put together a luxury apartment in the building with the intention of living there, then decided to stay put in their South Graham Street home, but they were still able to rent to an L.A. transplant who found the place a bargain. They plan to rent out two other lofts in the building as well. At street level, Cruze will use one side as his office and find a retail tenant for the other.
Cruze doesn’t believe that new businesses will have any problem finding customers.
“People are pretty adamant about supporting the businesses in the neighborhood,” he said. “To have the commercial district as part of the neighborhood is really a plus.”
McLaughlin has experienced her neighbors’ encouragement as well. “When I pull a tent outside and bring some art supplies out, people always seem to be curious and want to sit down and help in whatever project is at hand. I love how open-minded everyone has been,” she said.
Once the construction of the Children’s Home and the new Children’s Hospital, both on Penn Avenue, is complete, more foot traffic is expected as an influx of employees help to sustain new businesses.
“Things that are going to draw people to the business district will be successful,” Mondor says. Like Quiet Storm coffee house. Only a few years removed from its previous life as a nuisance bar, the Quiet Storm was wholly embraced by the community and became a draw for folks outside of the neighborhood looking for a unique Sunday brunch spot.
Mondor, Cruze and McLaughlin all mention the need for additional restaurants in a neighborhood that has ethnic flare, but limited offerings. Other retail possibilities include an art supply store, a bowling alley, a small grocery or market and a bookstore.
There are plenty of spaces in which those new businesses can be grown. Penn Avenue has a fair amount of empty storefronts and existing buildings that can be leased or purchased for a low cost, and much of the neighborhood’s new construction, like the senior housing project going up at Penn and Fairmount, has dedicated retail space as well.
“Progress has been slow, but it’s been somewhat steady,” Mondor says encouragingly. “We do have something that wasn’t here 10 years ago. I think it’s a good time to get in.”
For more info on Frienship & Penn Ave Arts District visit the PopCity:
- Visiting Guide
- Moving Guide
Directions to Friendship & Penn Ave Arts District
From the North:
Take I-279 South and take the East Street exit, Exit 8B, toward PA-28 North. Stay straight to go onto East St and turn left onto E Ohio St. Merge onto PA-28 North and take Exit 2 on the left for the 40th St. Bridge. Turn right onto 40th St. Bridge/Washington Xing Bridge. 40th St. Bridge/Washington Xing Bridge becomes 40th St. Turn left onto Penn Ave and arrive into the Penn Ave Arts District and Friendship.
From the East:
Take I-376 West and merge onto PA-8 via Exit 8B toward Wilkinsburg. Stay straight to go onto Penn Ave/PA-380 and continue to follow Penn Ave. Go past Negley Ave. and Arrive in Friendship and Penn Ave Arts District.
From the South:
Take PA-51 North and take the ramp toward I-579/Downtown/South Side. Turn right onto W Liberty Ave and turn slight right onto Liberty Tunnels. Liberty Tunnels becomes Liberty Bridge and stay straight to go onto Crosstown Blvd. Take the Bigelow Blvd/PA-380 exit and merge onto PA-380. Turn left onto Baum Blvd/PA-380/Baun Blvd bridge and continue to follow Baum. Turn left onto S Atlantic Ave and then right onto Penn Ave. Arrive in Friendship and Penn Ave Arts District.
From the West:
Take I-279 North toward Pittsburgh and merge onto PA-28 North via Exit 7C toward Chestnut St/East Ohio St/Etna. Take the 40th St. Bridge exit, Exit 2, on the left. Turn right onto 40th St. Bridge/Washington Xing Bridge. 40th St. Bridge/Washington Xing Bridge becomes 40th St. Turn left onto Penn Ave and arrive into the Penn Ave Arts District and Friendship.
Photos:Loysen + Kreuthmeier ArchitectsImage Box conference room kitchenFairmount ApartmentsLaura Jean McLaughlin at Clay PennDoug and Liza Cruze in their new renovation project on Penn Ave
Loft apartment on Penn Ave (above Image Box)
All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene