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Why We Need Pittsburgh's Main Streets

When most people think of Mt. Washington they envision Grandview Avenue and the sweeping view that has been ranked as one of the best in the country.

But to someone who grew up in the Mt. Washington of the 1950's, they're more likely to recall Shiloh Street, the historic main street that was the lively center of community life and source of neighborhood pride.  

In many cities where neighborhoods blend seamlessly into one another, distinctive community business districts like Shiloh aren't recognizable.  In Pittsburgh, where each neighborhood is like its own small town, main streets still provide the are the focal point.

In Mt. Washington long-time residents might remember the closing of their favorite shops, the gradual quieting of the once bustling sidewalks, and the inevitable rise in crime that transpired on Shiloh, as well as main streets across the country beginning in the 1960's —the unintended consequences of suburbanization.  

Walk down Shiloh Street today, though, and witness once vacant stores that are now filled with people, young families strolling the blocks, and colorful murals that have replaced the graffiti.

Catching On
And it's not just Mt. Washington. This rejuvenation is happening on main streets all across Pittsburgh as community development organizations, neighborhood residents, small business owners, and the City work together to employ a strategy created in 1980 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation focusing on main streets as the key to community improvement. (To see a complete list of all 10 "Mainstreets Pittsburgh" participants, click on this URA site.)

"On Shiloh Street we had a number of vacancies and now we only have one available space, which is being temporarily leased by a church," says Greg Panza, project manager for the MWCDC.  

There are plenty of reasons why a thriving main street has Panza excited.  The blend of unique architecture and local businesses on main streets have a profound influence on a community's spirit and sense of identity.  People walk the street instead of driving in isolation as they would to a big box store or strip mall, which makes for a safer and more sociable environment.  

As the prophetic architect Christopher Alexander wrote, "The more living patterns there are in a place, the more it comes to life as an entirety, the more it glows."   

The local character of most main street businesses not only allows for more local decision making and supports the innovations that arise from entrepreneurship, but it also brings 20% more money into the community than if similar purchases were made at a chain store.  

"Neighborhood business districts are the heart of a neighborhood.  The residential and the business parts of a community go hand in hand," says Josette Fitzgibbons, main streets coordinator for the URA, who coordinates citywide initiatives with community main street groups, as well as providing funding and technical assistance.  

The premise? If a central business district becomes a popular destination for diners and shoppers then enthusiastic new residents to the neighborhood will follow. One example is Bloomfield. The rise of popular coffee shops and contemporary restaurants on Liberty Avenue has helped redefine not only the older neighborhood but also the resident.  

Once an older Italian population, Bloomfield is now attracting more 30-somethings. "We're like 50/50 of each, with a nice mix of first and multi-generation residents," says Terry Aiello, main street manager for the Bloomfield Development Corporation.

"It used to be that the homes didn't go for sale here in Bloomfield.  They were just passed on to other family members but that has changed dramatically in the last five to ten years."    

This didn't happen by chance. It was the result of community willpower and people like Terry, who work hard to attract local businesses and connect existing businesses to funding programs offered by the URA.  Underlying this coordination and stamina that has caused the main street resurgence is a time-tested philosophy.

"With the Main Street program you really have to study the data and understand what makes your community tick and how you can make it stronger," says Panza.  He refers to the Main Street Four-Point Approach, a set of guidelines developed as part of The National Trust for Historic Preservation's comprehensive program. The four points include:
1. the organization of various groups within a community
2. the promotion of a positive commercial district image
3. the design of visually stimulating physical elements to make the neighborhood more inviting and
4. the analytic restructuring of economic assets.   

Just how those Four-Points become actualized is dependent upon the given community, but in Mt. Washington it has meant helping local business owners get organized and hone their marketing concepts, pumping $3.5 million worth of reinvestment into public spaces, signage, and storefronts, and the creation of the award winning Vu Plus campaign designed to draw foot traffic from Grandview to Shiloh.

The creation of a comprehensive Business District Vision Plan utilized public consensus and hard data about pedestrian traffic and other statistics. And initiatives like the seasonal Art Market Place drive visitors to Shiloh Street and support local artists at the same time.

At this rate, Mt. Washington may soon be a candidate for Neighborhood Improvement District (NID) funds. A NID is a district where businesses pay an additional tax used to fund wide-scale improvements and services. "If you form an Improvement District you get the NID money but you also get the regular services that every community gets.  What the improvement district provides is the things that a financially strapped city can't do," says Fitzgibbons. who is working with the South Side and East Liberty on their NID application processes.  Currently, Oakland and Downtown Pittsburgh are the only improvement districts in the City, though their classification, Business Improvement District (BID) does not include the residential properties around the business district.

Since 1982, the once industrial Carson Street on the South Side has seen the creation of over 250 businesses and large-scale development projects such as The South Side Works and Station Square.  

Now the sidewalks, cafes, and shops teem with people day and night By July 2012, the non-profit South Side Local Development Company will close its doors with a sentiment of "mission complete".

With property values considerably higher than city average, interest from investors to fund non-proft real estate has really dwindled, says Aaron Sukenik, manager of business development for the South Side Local Development Company. "That's what has brought us to the Neighborhood Improvement District," he adds.

Communities though to be too far gone to benefit from the Main Street approach have successfully shown signs of a positive future.  While many start with the assistance of the URA's Main Street Program, which supplies operational funding for the first five years, there are a surprising amount of other resources available to community groups. 

For instance, the four-year-old Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation worked hard with a modest budget to install signage, trash receptacles, and lighting on their blighted Penn Avenue business corridor.  Their efforts generated a snowballing of support for the community, resulting in the restoration of some of the neighborhood's historic houses and a six-year, $1.8 million funding commitment from Tri-State Capital Bank.

Even without funding, there are a lot of other ways to get started, says Mara Dowdy, program director for Town Center Associates, one of many resources for main street communities just starting out with this process. Town Center holds workshops that explore the concerns of a community then help create a step-based action plan using the Four-Point approach.  

While everyone acknowledges that a lingering perception of crime, negligent property owners, and shortage of money can be daunting obstacles, they remain optimistic. "I think people need to realize that this effort takes a long time.  You can't just clean the sidewalks and plant trees and think that you're going to have businesses flock to you and you'll be done. You need to set long-term goals," says Dowdy.  

In Mt. Washington, that commitment to long-term goals is paying off.  "We haven't really had a big boom but we're a 'slow and steady wins the race' main street and I feel like our best years are ahead of us.  If you've studied main streets it's a long process," says Panza. "It's not an overnight success."

Captions, from the top:  Mural on Shiloh Street in Mount Washington; Greg Panza; East Carson Street on the South Side; Josette Fitzgibbons; Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield; Mara Dowdy; Terry Aiello; Shiloh Street.

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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