Menu Contact/Location

Category Archive: Main & Elm Street Programs

  1. Vocational Training Center Opens in Larimer

    Auto body shop owner will train budding mechanics in 14,500-square-foot facility
    Friday, October 01, 2010
    By Diana Nelson Jones, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

    Mike Fiore and his son, Michael, expect Mike's Auto Body and Vocational Center in Larimer to be fully operational by early next year. Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette

    Mike Fiore stood behind a podium Thursday morning, with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl to his left, and said, “We finally got here.”

    Mike’s Auto Body and Vocational Center — a dream that Mr. Fiore began chatting about with his son Michael four years ago — officially opened with a ceremony on the Meadow Street site in Larimer on Thursday. It will be fully operational by early next year, when Mr. Fiore expects to enroll his first class of mechanics for certification training, he said.

    Mr. Ravenstahl called the training center the first substantial private investment in the neighborhood in 40 years. Mr. Fiore’s shop specializes in collision repairs and custom body work. He has run his business in Larimer for 40 years and trained young mechanics, but he had to take them off-site for some instruction. The new 14,500-square-foot vocational center will keep them on-site for hands-on and classroom work.

    Mr. Fiore said he hopes 36 will graduate each year, certified in welding, spraying paint, diagnostics and other skills.

    The $1.8 million project, with investment from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the Small Business Administration and Fidelity Bank, will employ 10 people full time and has the potential to join other businesses in retrofitting gas-burning cars into electric cars.

    Mr. Ferlo said that while multi-million dollar projects get most of the attention, “we never lose sight of the importance of small businesses and the cumulative total of their benefits.”

    Tom Link, manager of the URA’s business development center, said small business is responsible for 70 percent of new job creation.

    Mr. Ravenstahl said the training center “is a seed for future growth,” and that, with the new Target store being constructed nearby in East Liberty, “shame on us if we can’t figure out how to spread investment throughout the Larimer community.”

    Meadow Street is a strategic corridor because it runs through Larimer and into Highland Park and East Liberty.

    Mr. Ferlo, a URA board member, said the URA would like to buy several properties directly across the street from the vocational center in order to develop a retail and housing link.

    Already, the vocational center has been used as meeting space for Highland Park neighborhood advocates, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Larimer Green Team and ward leaders.

    Mr. Fiore said he advanced his idea to a lot of people and that many weren’t encouraging.

    “A lot of folks said, ‘wonderful idea,’ and walked away,” he said. “But my son and his wife [Michael and Chrissy Fiore] were nonstop support. And Jim Ferlo. He kept after me through all the paperwork, ‘C’mon, we’re going to get this done.’ We’ll get through all the hassles.’

    “And we did it.”

  2. History Festival to Mark East Liberty’s Past

    First-time event to highlight area’s change, influence
    Friday, October 01, 2010
    By Diana Nelson Jones, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

    In this photo taken in the 1890s, Civil War veterans participate in a reunion in front of a building on Penn Circle South that is still standing in East Liberty. The past of the East End/East Liberty area will be celebrated during Saturday's first-ever East Liberty History Festival. Courtesy of the East End/East Liberty Historical Society

    Public knowledge of East Liberty’s past is stuck on urban renewal, high-rises and crime. But that era was a blip.

    East End history buffs hope to put the past in perspective Saturday at the East Liberty History Festival, a first-time event in a neighborhood of firsts.

    What most people don’t know about East End history — with East Liberty at its hub — would overflow the parking lot at Eastminster Presbyterian Church, but the day-long event of the East End/East Liberty Historical Society has been designed to fit there, for free, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

    From Indians and traders to the first immigrant settlers, the festival will highlight the progression of development and industrial change that brought unparalleled prosperity to the area. In a recent Arcadia “Images of America” publication, the title “Pittsburgh’s East Liberty Valley” was chosen to encompass the breadth of East Liberty’s influence.

    Historical society members who put the book together said many images that would today be in Shadyside or other adjacent neighborhoods were then described as East Liberty.

    “On the old postcards, East Liberty went all the way up to Fifth Avenue,” said Marilyn Evert, a member of the historical society and director of development at Homewood Cemetery. When East Liberty began its slump in the 1970s, she said, “people began to disassociate themselves.”

    Al Mann, a retired chemical engineer from Highland Park, has been at the helm of planning the festival for the past year as the society’s president. In a bag behind the driver’s seat of his car, he has been carrying around items for display, among them a large aluminum mold of an Easter bunny.

    The mold was used at Bolan’s Candies in East Liberty, the first of the family’s several stores, open on Penn Avenue from 1918 until several years ago.

    “We have a lot of firsts,” said Mr. Mann. The first commercial oil refinery in the nation was in Highland Park, and the society has the papers to prove it. The first radio broadcast of a church service was from Calvary Episcopal in Shadyside in 1921. The nation’s first drive-up gas station was at Baum Boulevard and St. Clair Street. Pittsburgh’s first traffic light was at Highland and Penn avenues.

    Festival highlights will include re-enactments of processes developed by industrialists who lived or did business in the East End.

    Charles Honeywell, executive director of the historical society, will demonstrate iron and aluminum production using small furnaces. “The blast furnace will produce iron from iron ore, coke and limestone, just like the big ones. Superheated 3,000-degree iron will pour out into a mold that people can see.”

    Aluminum will be melted in a small crucible furnace and poured into medallion molds with street car emblems. Those will be sold to the public.

    Bus tours throughout the day will take people to points of interest that include the Highland Park reservoir, a Negley family burial marker, grand churches, the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater and a house that encases a log cabin built in 1794.

    Exhibits will show the historic transitions of Calvary and St. Andrew’s Episcopal churches and a wall of fame reproduced from panels in the Kelly-Strayhorn. The photos of performing artists and other celebrities attest to the role the East End played as a breeding ground for the entertainment industry.

    Ms. Evert said her interest stems from working and worshipping in the East End. She lives in Fox Chapel.

    When the society formed in 2002, she said, it was in part to interest people in the East End’s future.

    “The idea was that if people became aware of their history and where they came from, that would be conducive to development. It has such an extraordinary history. It’s unbelievable the things that came out of this one place.”

  3. Carnegie’s Library Legacy

    The Carnegie struggles with honoring the past while serving the present and future

    Sunday, March 02, 2003

    By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

    From Fiji to Florida to Fresno, Calif., Andrew Carnegie built 2,509 libraries between 1881 and 1917, mostly in America, the British Isles and Canada. To this day, Carnegie’s free-to-the-people libraries remain Pittsburgh’s most significant cultural export, a gift that has shaped the minds and lives of millions.

    The Homewood library opened at the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Lang Street in 1910. Today the branch becomes the first to be rehabilitated in Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's $40 million systemwide renovation, libraries also must accommodate information available through electronic media. New computer stations are among the updates in the Homewood makeover, which restores major architectural elements while sacrificing others considered less significant. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

    From the monumental libraries of the Monongahela Valley steel towns to the smaller branch libraries in Pittsburgh neighborhoods, the Carnegie library buildings of Western Pennsylvania also have a national significance — and for some, an uncertain future.

    In Pittsburgh, whether to bring these beloved, iconic but aging buildings into the 21st century or leave them behind is a question the city soon will face, as Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh reinvents itself with an emphasis on customer service and satisfaction.

    Last fall, when library director Herb Elish asked City Council to give the library the option to buy the city-owned buildings it occupies, it wasn’t because he has a real estate fetish. While Elish doesn’t want to talk publicly about which libraries eventually may have new uses, he acknowledges that three of the older buildings could be sold, although not without community input.

    The man who seems destined to have the biggest impact on Carnegie’s Pittsburgh libraries since the steelmaker himself is also a former steel executive, CEO at Weirton Steel Corp. from 1987 to his retirement in 1995.

    Elish said he took the library job because he thinks libraries can “raise up people’s consciousness,” leading to “greater literacy, better jobs and rich, useful lives.” He wants each library, old or new, to be a place “people want to come to, think is enjoyable, get a lot out of and have fun at, because at the end of the day, it’ll just make their lives better.”

    Elish’s $40 million systemwide makeover got under way last month when work began on the historic Homewood library. Renovations to the Brookline, Squirrel Hill and Woods Run branches and the central library in Oakland also will happen over the coming year. To design the plans, Elish hired five small Pittsburgh architecture firms known for imaginative, even provocative work, then matched them with the projects for which they seemed most suited. The idea, Elish said, was “to get a lot of ferment of ideas, with architects talking to each other about how things should be designed.”

    For the 19 city libraries expected to be renovated over the next five to seven years, the goals are the same: to create “fully modern buildings” that are air-conditioned and accessible for wheelchairs and baby strollers, have community meeting rooms and spaces for teens, and give “each neighborhood a space and an image that is new and that the community can be proud of,” Elish said.

    “Economic development can happen around a library because libraries attract a lot of people,” he added. “We think that libraries can be symbolic of belief in and support of the neighborhoods. It’s one of the reasons that we, as a policy matter, said we weren’t going to end library service in any neighborhood where it currently exists. We can be a force to help bring that neighborhood back.”

    The Woods Run branch library, shown on opening day, July 8, 1964, is scheduled for interior renovation this year as well as for construction of a drive-through drop-off for books.

    Let there be libraries

    Carnegie opened his first public library in his hometown, Dunfermline, Scotland, in 1883. Rather than his name, he had a motto — “Let there be light” — carved within the Gothic-arched entrance; nevertheless, the three-story, turreted stone castle of a building announced that the weaver’s son had done rather well in America.

    As many full-blooded Pittsburghers know, Carnegie erected his first public library in this country in his adopted hometown, Allegheny City, where as a youth he drank from the sweet chalice of knowledge in the home of Col. James Anderson, who opened his personal library on Saturday afternoons to the neighborhood’s working boys.

    Braddock’s library had opened a year earlier, in 1889, but not as a publicly supported library. Braddock’s was fully funded by the Carnegie Steel Co. and governed by its officials — giving both the Braddock and Allegheny libraries bragging rights to firsts. Homestead’s library followed in 1898, Carnegie’s in 1901 and Duquesne’s in 1904.

    While some of Carnegie’s steelworkers literally and figuratively had no time for his libraries, preferring the saloon and the lodge, other men and their wives learned English there at night and made good use of the libraries’ music halls, gyms, bowling allies, swimming pools and baths.

    And their children and their children’s children embraced them. Monumental entrance arches, grand staircases, marble floors and hooded fireplaces transported girls and boys to another world. The medieval French chateau and the Renaissance palazzo, set down amid fire-breathing furnaces, clapboard houses and courtyards strung with laundry, gave hope to children in the first half of the 20th century that life wasn’t all blood, sweat and soot. Best of all, the shelves were lined with books, and you could carry your dreams right out the front door.

    For the Allegheny library, Washington, D.C., architects Smithmeyer & Pelz drew not from the lavish, ornate classicism of their 1873, Renaissance-style design for the Library of Congress but from Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson’s smaller, asymmetrical, towered New England libraries in rusticated stone.

    Smithmeyer & Pelz gave the Allegheny City library foyer a wide, white marble staircase leading to the second floor, much as patrons would have found in one of the homes on nearby Ridge Avenue. Beyond the entrance hall was the “delivery room,” where books fetched by librarians from closed stacks were dispensed to readers. At one end of the room, an early photograph shows, Andrew Carnegie’s benevolent gaze greeted them from above a roaring fireplace. To the right of the delivery room was the men’s reading room and, in a small alcove, the women’s reading room.

    There was no children’s room in the Allegheny City library — that innovation belongs to the Lawrenceville library of 1898 — but for adults and children alike, the Allegheny library’s “homey touches encouraged readers to think that the hierarchy was sustained not just by economic power but by mutual love and respect, as in an extended family,” writes architectural historian Abigail Van Slyck in “Free to All,” her 1995 book on Carnegie libraries. “Library users might then look upon Carnegie as a rich uncle, who deserved respect, obedience and affection, and whose affection in return precluded any class resentment.”

    Carnegie still presides over the library’s former delivery room, but not from over the fireplace mantel. A 1970s renovation gutted most of the original interior. Today, as Pittsburgh’s Allegheny branch, the library is bright, white, modern and actively used. But it has lost its grand staircase, fireplace and all of its domestic and hierarchical connotations. Uncle Andy’s portrait hangs unceremoniously above a periodicals rack, flanked by the men’s and women’s bathrooms.

    Visitors will have little trouble stepping back a century in the Braddock and Carnegielibraries, which have accommodated new technology without sacrificing the cozy comfort of their historic interiors. In both locations, Carnegie’s portrait still hangs over the fireplace.

    Like the Andrew Carnegie Free Library of Carnegie, the Carnegie Library of Homestead is majestically sited near a hilltop, overlooking the town and the river valley. Opened in 1898, it has seen some interior alterations over the years — for one thing, the fireplace gave way to bookshelves — but it’s still standing and serving its community — more than can be said for the 1904 library in nearby Duquesne. Rivaling the Homestead and Carnegie libraries in size and setting, the Duquesne building was demolished in 1968 to make way for a school district building that was never built. The library site is now Library Court, a cul-de-sac of ranch houses.

    A distinguishing feature of Pittsburgh's Carnegie library branches is the wood and glass partitions between rooms, which allowed a single librarian to watch over the entire facility. At the Homewood library, shown here with a view from the lobby into the children's reading room, sections of the partitions will be removed to create better flow between the lobby and the adult and children's reading rooms. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

    A late bloomer

    Pittsburgh also was getting in on the library boom, even if it was a little late to the party. In 1881, the same year Carnegie began his first library in Dunfermline, he offered Pittsburgh $250,000 for a library if the city would provide the land and $15,000 annually for its maintenance. It was an offer the city could and did refuse, believing it was not a state-sanctioned use of public money.

    By 1887, with the city assured by the state legislature that a public library was an appropriate use of tax funds, Pittsburgh officials told Carnegie they were ready to accept his gift. In 1890, the philanthropist expanded his original offer to $1 million for a conjoined central library and art museum, as well as branch libraries in the neighborhoods, which Carnegie came to view as more important in elevating the working class. Eventually, his gift to Pittsburgh would total $1,160,614.

    Twelve years after the initial offer, construction began on the central library and museum in Oakland, following a design competition won by Longfellow, Alden & Harlow of Pittsburgh and Boston. But not long after it opened, the library was found to be woefully inadequate. For one thing, everybody forgot about the kids.

    “So little thought was given to children as library users before 1895 that no provision was made for them,” library director Ralph Munn wrote in 1969. The library also had no room for scientific and technical books. An addition, opened in 1907, solved both problems, as well as one that had vexed Carnegie for more than a decade. The twin towers that flanked the music hall — “donkey ears,” he called them — were demolished in the expansion.

    Today, Elish said, the problem with the main library is its organization: “You sort of need a secret handshake to find your way around.”

    Books are shelved in unpredictable locations and departments, and even once visitors identify where a book is, they can have a hard time finding it.

    To remedy that, Friendship-based EDGE architecture is working with librarians and South Side’s MAYA Design to reorganize and, as MAYA likes to put it, “tame the complexity.” MAYA analyzed why people couldn’t find what they were looking for and discovered that, in a library with millions of items spread over a labyrinth of rooms, “wayfinding” is an issue right up there with book-finding.

    EDGE’s $3.1 million design is still being refined and won’t be ready for public review for a couple of months.

    “We’re looking to make an environment that’s a destination because it’s entertaining, it’s informative and it’s an exciting place to be — and not do anything that violates the existing architecture and character,” said EDGE architect Gary Carlough.

    Work could begin as early as mid-summer, but Dunham said it’s too soon to say how long the renovation might take.

    While the branch libraries have gone or will go through a neighborhood input process in their renovation planning stages, for the main library, that process will happen in public hearings before City Council, a requirement for any project in the main library with more than a $1 million budget.

    A first for Lawrenceville

    After impressing Carnegie with the quality of their work — and their ability to stay on budget — Longfellow, Alden & Harlow, who also completed an 1893 addition to the Braddock library, would go on to design the Homestead and Duquesne libraries and, as Alden & Harlow, eight Pittsburgh branches, as well as libraries in Oakmont, Erie and, in Ohio, at Salem and Steubenville.

    The first of the Pittsburgh branches, completed in 1898, was in Lawrenceville, the densely built neighborhood of factories and brick rowhouses. The library was built on residential Fisk Street, in the heart of the neighborhood but not on the main drag.

    No more would Carnegie build big, homey castles, as he had done in the towns with which he had personal associations. Correspondingly, Alden & Harlow “divested their libraries of the domestic connotations that had appealed to the paternalistic philanthropist of 1880, and allowed the buildings to convey their public nature to prospective readers,” Van Slyck writes. The branch libraries would be classical and symmetrical, and done in brick to better fit their surroundings.

    With a then-revolutionary open-shelf policy in all branches, the small libraries were planned so one librarian could oversee the entire operation. That dictated the interior plans of all the Pittsburgh branches, beginning at Lawrenceville and continuing through West End and Wylie Avenue (1899), Mount Washington and Hazelwood (1900), East Liberty (1905), South Side (1908) and Homewood (1910).

    Lawrenceville was “the most innovative and important of these Pittsburgh branch libraries,” a design that “broke with Richardsonian precedent in both style and plan,” writes Margaret Henderson Floyd in “Architecture After Richardson,” her 1994 book on Longfellow, Alden and Harlow.

    Located just beyond the lobby, the circulation desk — no longer a delivery desk — took center stage in Lawrenceville, flanked by turnstiles that admitted readers to the open stacks one at a time, under the librarian’s watchful eye. To thwart thievery, the stacks were arranged in a radial pattern. On each side of the lobby were a general reading room and, for the first time in a library anywhere, a room for children, many of whom were learning English as a second language or had immigrant parents. The reading rooms were separated by walls that became glass partitions above waist level — the better to see you with, my dear.

    Despite such controlling devices, the library was well used. Over a six-week period in 1925, for example, a YWCA study of the Lawrenceville library found that 190 young women between 18 and 25 requested 736 books, 590 of which were fiction; the most popular writer was Pittsburgh’s own Mary Roberts Rinehart.

    The Lawrenceville design — a rectangle with a semicircular rear projection to accommodate the radial stacks — was repeated at East Liberty, but economy forced other branches into a mostly rectangular plan, with shelves lining the perimeter walls.

    The plan developed here became a model for Carnegie libraries around the world, and, in 1911, was included in a design advisory pamphlet issued by Carnegie’s secretary, James Bertram, who reviewed the plans of all Carnegie libraries after 1908.

    The East Liberty library, serving the wealthy East End community, was the largest of the branches when it opened, but it was demolished in the late 1960s to accommodate the city’s ill-fated urban renewal plan for the commercial district.

    The Wylie Avenue branch moved from its historic building to a new location in 1982, because demolition of the Lower Hill neighborhood in the 1960s had left it at one end of its former service area. The building now houses a mosque.

    But the six branches that survive as libraries — Lawrenceville, West End, Mount Washington, Hazelwood, South Side and Homewood — have a remarkably high degree of integrity, inside and out.

    A dwindling legacy

    By 1917, Carnegie had invested $68,333,973 in libraries here and abroad, equivalent to about $966 million today. Of the 1,689 Carnegie libraries built in America, at least 350 have gone on to other uses, writes Theodore Jones in his 1997 book, “Carnegie Libraries Across America: A Public Legacy.” Another 259 have been razed or destroyed by fire or other natural disasters — 100 in the 1960s, 47 in the 1970s, 12 in the 1980s, a downward trend fueled by the historic preservation movement.

    But that trend, Jones writes, has been reversing since the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

    “Public libraries are moving out of their original Carnegie buildings more frequently than ever,” he writes. According to 1991 and 1996 surveys, of the 350 or so libraries that have been reused, 60 were still libraries in 1991.

    Elish has said he would consider selling a branch building if it proves too expensive to upgrade or is in a difficult location that lacks parking, but he is keeping an open mind and hopes Pittsburghers will do the same. He also wants to hear from the community.

    “We don’t want to get in a position of saying, ‘We don’t want to be in [the old] building’ and have the community rise up in arms” and not use the new building, Elish said. But, he adds, “Part of this is a cost problem. If you find that the renovation of a building is prohibitive compared to what you’re going to get in a new building, you need to lay out the costs and talk about them. You can’t make irresponsible decisions.

    “I just think by the end of all of the conversations about this, that good sense will prevail on both sides. We will learn from each other and reach a conclusion together.”

    It’s a dialogue that should engage everyone who has a stake in the future of Pittsburgh’s archetypal neighborhood libraries.

  4. Cabinets’ Display of Pittsburgh Artifacts Debut

    By Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
    Wednesday, September 8, 2010

    City Council President Darlene Harris unveiled two display cases Tuesday morning outside council chambers in City Hall featuring historical documents and memorabilia.

    Included are the official charters of the City of Pittsburgh and what was then the Borough of Pittsburgh; flags of Pittsburgh’s 16 sister cities; and gifts presented to the city from visiting dignitaries.

    The cabinets were paid for with money allocated for the Sister City program. Pittsburgh’s sister cities include Sheffield, England; DaNang, Vietnam; and Karmiel and Misgav, Israel.

    The Sister City program began in 1956 to further exchanges between the United States and other countries.

  5. Trail Envisioned as Enriching Youghiogheny Towns

    By Stacey Federoff
    Wednesday, September 15, 2010

    The Great Allegheny Passage trail generates $40 million a year in economic spending, and a preservation plan is intended to use historic preservation in six trail towns to harness that spending power.

    A meeting Tuesday night in West Newton hosted by the Progress Fund’s Trail Towns Program organized preliminary goals and objectives for that plan.

    Meetings were open to the six communities — West Newton, Connellsville, Ohiopyle, Confluence, Meyersdale and Rockwood — in March to gather ideas.

    This second round of workshops, including one at noon today at the Ohiopyle-Stewart Community Center in Ohiopyle and another at 6:30 p.m. at the Turkeyfoot Valley Historical Society in Confluence, are meant to make sure the project was on the right track.

    “The purpose of these meetings is to test our information,” said Matt Goebel, vice president of Clarion Associates of Denver, a preservation planning firm assisting with the project. “We’re continuing to seek input as much as we can throughout this whole process.”

    About 15 people, many of whom were officials involved in the plan, were on hand in West Newton, but Goebel said the plan is trying to include more than just historical societies and preservation agencies.

    “A big theme of this project is that preservation needs to move beyond the usual suspects,” he said, branching out to local governments or chambers of commerce.

    One of the group’s goals is to identify common industries and cultural landscapes while continuing to preserve each of the towns’ authenticity.

    “We want the trail towns hopefully to work together, but we also want you to own who you are and what makes you unique,” said Erin Hammerstedt of Preservation Pennsylvania.

    She pointed out potential areas for preservation in each town, complimenting the classic downtowns in West Newton and Connellsville.

    The organizations hope to have a draft plan prepared this fall and begin implementing it by year’s end.

  6. Blight-Fighting Pennsylvania Bill Targets Vacant Buildings

    By Craig Smith
    Monday, September 27, 2010

    Vacant properties at 1103-1105 Fulton St. mar the Manchester section of the North Side. Philip G. Pavely/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

    Grace Rothmeyer worries about her home of 23 years in Etna, even though one of two empty houses next door finally sold.

    “I’m really happy that it sold,” said Rothmeyer, 77, of Oakland Street, who waited two years for new neighbors. “Sometimes when they are empty that long, they can become crack houses.”

    Empty homes and buildings are causing a dilemma for municipal officials across the nation. Pennsylvania lawmakers are working to arm local officials with tools to battle blight.

    A bill before the state House would allow for extradition of out-of-state property owners with pending housing code violations. The measure, introduced by Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, unanimously passed the Senate in July and awaits action in the House Urban Affairs Committee. Lawmakers hope to get it ready for the governor’s signature before the end of the year.

    The extent of the problem statewide is difficult to measure, officials said. Estimates put the number of vacant buildings across Pennsylvania at 300,000, including more than 17,000 in Pittsburgh and more than 44,000 in Allegheny County.

    “There is no inventory of abandoned buildings,” said attorney Irene McLaughlin, who co-chairs a task force formed by the Allegheny County Bar Association’s Real Property Section and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s office.

    Nationwide, foreclosures rose 4.2 percent in August from July but declined 5.5 percent from a year ago. The pace of home mortgage foreclosure activity decreased 13.2 percent in the seven-county Pittsburgh region from July levels but was up 16.8 percent from August 2009, according to data from RealtyTrac Inc.

    Landlords oppose Argall’s bill.

    “It will hamper development; it will tie the hands of people who do that kind of work,” said Jean Yevik, president of the Western Pennsylvania Real Estate Investors Association.

    She questioned whether extradition would work.

    “I feel those folks have a responsibility if they bought property here, but if they are going to try to extradite those with code violations, do you think California will extradite them?” Yevik asked. “Would you like to be the test case? I would.”

    Municipal authority

    The bill would give municipalities the authority to go after the financial assets of negligent owners and hold lenders responsible for properties they control through foreclosure.

    “That’s what we need,” said Ed Fike, mayor of Uniontown.

    Once home to Sears Roebuck & Co., G.C. Murphy Co. and Kaufmann’s, the Fayette County seat is a city in transition like many Pennsylvania towns. Large, empty storefronts were converted to apartments for seniors and other uses.

    Officials in small boroughs such as Etna have hoped for a broad approach rather than community-by-community enforcement.

    “This needs to go up a couple levels,” borough Manager Mary Ellen Ramage said. “It is a problem that many (communities) face.”

    Many of Etna’s 15 to 20 vacant buildings, including the former Freeport Hotel, have been empty for more than 10 years.

    “All smaller communities are suffering the impact of this. No community is exempt,” said Diana M. Reitz, community development coordinator in Jeannette. “Government has to step it up.”

    Between April 1, 2009, and March 31, Pittsburgh spent more than $615,000 in Community Development Block Grant money on clearance and demolition, according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Allegheny County spent more than $1.3 million for clearance and demolition between March 1, 2009, and Feb. 28.

    Westmoreland County spent more than $303,000 between May 1, 2009, and Aug. 1 of this year for clearance and demolition, HUD records show.

    Developing a plan to reuse properties after they’re acquired is critical, said Larry Larese, executive director of the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corp.

    “The devil will be in the details,” he said.

    ‘Right-sizing’ razing

    Advocates for cities with declining populations — they call it “right-sizing” — maintain that those cities should accept they won’t rebuild population bases quickly and should level abandoned houses and buildings to make room for parks, gardens and green spaces.

    The Center for Community Progress, a blight-fighting group from Flint, Mich., is working with 15 cities, including Pittsburgh, to develop strategies to deal with blight.

    Flint razed 1,500 to 1,600 abandoned houses to reshape its neighborhoods, said Dan Kildee, co-founder and president of the organization and the former treasurer of Genesee County, Mich., and Genesee County Land Bank chairman.

    “It’s about reuse of the land … working with local investors and neighborhoods, instead of shotgunning these properties out to the speculator market,” Kildee said.

    But wholesale bulldozing worries preservationists.

    “We are talking with the city about (buildings) that are architecturally valuable. And the city has been cooperative,” said Arthur Ziegler Jr., president of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. “But there’s been no overall policy developed yet.”

    People abandon buildings for many reasons, according to Sustainable Pittsburgh, an advocacy group working to revitalize urban areas.

    The properties might be owned by absentee landlords or slumlords. They might be sealed, vacant properties that speculators are sitting on. Some are underwater — that is, the debt exceeds market value. Others are owned and occupied by people whose incomes don’t allow for needed repairs.

    Many are properties whose owners died, moved to nursing homes, relocated for job opportunities or went bankrupt.

    Land bank authorities

    A separate bill that establishes land bank authorities in Pennsylvania passed the House in June. It awaits action in the Senate.

    The measure, introduced by Rep. John Taylor, R-Philadelphia, would enable local governments to establish land bank authorities that can maintain, develop and resell properties they buy through foreclosures or sheriff’s sales. If Taylor’s bill passes, Pennsylvania would become the ninth state with such a law.

    Land banking authorities are an alternative to the traditional method of auctioning foreclosed properties.

    Kendall Pelling, project manager with East Liberty Development Inc., stands in front of a home acquired by the nonprofit development group and renovated along Baywood Street in East Liberty. Justin Merriman/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

    “Legislation at the state level … will help communities deal holistically with abandoned properties. They can be moved into public ownership more quickly,” said Kendall Pelling, project manager at East Liberty Development Inc., a nonprofit development corporation working to help revitalize the community.

    Abandoned buildings are “impeding community and economic development programs and conveying images of old, worn-out communities,” said Joanna Demming, director of the Southwestern Pennsylvania office of The Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania.

    Their impact is felt in communities such as Etna, a close-knit town where men once walked to work in nearby mills. The borough’s population was 7,493 in 1930 but dwindled to 3,560 by 2008, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

    “I could see my wife hanging laundry in the yard while I was at work,” recalled Sigmund Dziubinski, 80, of Oakland Street. “It was a different era. You lived and worked in the town.”

    Rent, raze or remodel?

    The house at 5506 Baywood St. in East Liberty had been abandoned for 10 years and was ready for the wrecking ball, neighbors said.

    “It took a leap of faith to rehabilitate it,” said Gary Cirrincione, who lives nearby and serves on the Negley Place Neighborhood Alliance, a community group of “urban activist-types and people with an appreciation of historic housing” that has been working to revitalize the neighborhood for the past 20 years.

    “We’ve been called the Woodstock generation,” Cirrincione said.

    The effort is paying off; the neighborhood is turning around.

    The house across the street from 5506 is being restored. Down the block, another. A couple of streets over, houses that once stood empty contain families.

    “We have properties on Baywood that would have sold lower. If you can do the right intervention, you can stabilize the market,” said Kendall Pelling, project manager at East Liberty Development Inc., a nonprofit development group involved with the purchase, sale or renovation of 102 properties during the past three years.

    A house bought in foreclosure in 2007 for $55,000 was sold last year for $310,000. Another former tax foreclosure property that underwent extensive renovation is for sale; its asking price is $324,900.

    As in neighborhoods in other towns across Pennsylvania, absentee landlords were a problem in East Liberty.

    “There’s a tendency to slap a coat of paint on it and rent it as is. … Milk the building, and then walk away,” Cirrincione said.

    Darleena Butler watched a lot of rehab work along Baywood in the three years she has lived there. More remains to be done. The house across the street has been empty for a year; the one next door is for sale.

    “Instead of tearing them down, remodel,” Butler said. “That brings new life into the neighborhood.”

    Nobody’s home

    Using data provided by the U.S. Postal Service, the Pittsburgh Neighborhood and Community Information System classified 8,555 of the 160,000 residential addresses in Pittsburgh as “vacant” during the third quarter of 2009 and another 8,995 as “not ready for occupancy.”

    In Allegheny County, 20,730 of 603,000 residential addresses were vacant during that period while 23,387 were not ready for occupancy, the group reported.

    Source: Pittsburgh Neighborhood and Community Information System

  7. Plan OK’d to Raze UPMC Braddock

    CCAC campus and medical clinic planned for site
    Thursday, September 16, 2010
    By Deborah M. Todd, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

    During an emotional meeting, at which the death of Councilwoman Millie Devich was marked with a moment of silence and a bouquet of flowers behind her nameplate in council chambers, motions designed to address Braddock’s financial future added to the fervor.

    Borough council voted, 4-0, to approve a memorandum of understanding among the borough, UPMC and the Allegheny County Redevelopment Authority regarding a plan to demolish UPMC Braddock and replace it with a multiuse facility.

    Councilman Milan Devich was not in attendance.

    The memo calls for UPMC to pay for the hospital’s demolition, estimated at about $5 million, to make way for the potential construction of a building that would feature a Community College of Allegheny County campus as well as a medical clinic.

    Most of the land currently being used for parking would be used for new housing, but the Braddock Avenue lot where the former Sky Bank sat would be turned over to the borough once the Redevelopment Authority acquires the title.

    The borough also would receive $90,000 per year for the next five years from UPMC as part of the deal.

    UPMC would contribute $3 million toward the proposed $29 million development, but that sum is contingent upon the county receiving $3 million from the state to match the effort.

    Solicitor M. Lawrence Shields said the state had already earmarked the funds for the borough.

    Mr. Shields said the memo should be considered in conjunction with a recent agreement settling a federal civil rights claim filed against UPMC by council President Jesse Brown.

    The U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights reached an agreement with UPMC to provide door-to-door transportation for Braddock residents to an outpatient site in Forest Hills and to UPMC McKeesport.

    It also requires UPMC to provide six health screenings per year in the community; to have a patient liaison assist residents having difficulties accessing care; to assist health ministries in local churches; and to place strong emphasis on preventative care with its “Steps to a Healthy Community” program.

    The agreement is in effect for three years.

    “This is a package deal, so to speak, where both of these agreements interrelate,” said Mr. Shields. “Hopefully, through both of these agreements, we believe we’ve obtained the most we could possibly obtain under the circumstances.

    “Believe me when I tell you we tried very, very hard to obtain as much as we possibly could for the citizens of Braddock.”

    Mr. Brown said HHS representatives would discuss terms of the civil rights settlement at a meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Blazing Bingo Hall on Talbot Avenue.

    Choking up during some points of his speech, Mr. Brown encouraged religious leaders, residents and public officials to come to hear exactly how much Braddock had gained thanks to efforts by local officials, and how much it stood to lose without those efforts.

    “UPMC wouldn’t give us nothing,” Mr. Brown said. “They would have walked away and would have given Braddock nothing. But we do have some services that are a part of this agreement. We’re going to have an urgent care center, which we didn’t have before, that will be beneficial to the residents of this community.”

    In the aftermath of the suspension of borough manager Ella Jones, council approved a number of measures designed to detect and prevent fraud.

    Ms. Jones, 58, of Turtle Creek is accused of embezzling more than $170,000 from the borough since 2008.

    From now on, all paper checks issued can come from only the borough’s general fund and payroll accounts. If funds from the remaining deposit-only accounts are needed in the event of an emergency, the money would have to be transferred to the general fund to write the check.

    All emergencies must be explained to council in writing. Council also started a policy of reviewing a list of bills before approving payment each month.

    Interim borough manager Paul Leger was authorized to sign off on borough checks, along with Mr. Brown and Vice President Matthew Thomas.

    Mr. Leger also was appointed to the Southeast Allegheny Tax Collection Committee for Earned Income Tax Collection. Councilwoman Tina Doose was appointed to the finance committee.

    Mr. Leger said the moves were an attempt to bring the borough in line with earlier suggestions made regarding the borough’s financial controls.

    “This stuff is boring, but necessary to bring us in compliance with our audit recommendations,” he said.

  8. ‘Improve the Vue’ Needs a Helping Hand in Bellevue

    Thursday, September 16, 2010
    By Jonathan Barnes

    Bellevue residents and merchants have raised the visibility of the borough’s business district in recent months, gaining county and borough backing of a plan to redevelop the main street area. The plan has been led by the Bellevue Initiative for Growth development group, or B.I.G.

    The Initiative helped the borough to get $150,000 last year through Allegheny Together to pay consultants to aid a redevelopment plan that will focus on revitalizing the borough’s Lincoln Avenue business district.

    That plan will take months to devise and implement, but in the meantime, members of the Helping Hands committee of the Initiative want to make physical improvements throughout the borough, and they’re looking for hands to help.

    The committee will be host to Improve The Vue, a communitywide volunteer effort Oct. 9 that will tackle several projects intended to spruce up the borough. The daylong event is being sponsored by West Penn Allegheny Health System.

    Chuck Gohn, head pastor of Bellevue Christian Church and a member of the Helping Hands committee, is leading the program. He hopes to involve 500 volunteers in the effort.

    Rev. Gohn also is looking for more business sponsors. The day will begin at 7 a.m. in Bayne Park and will involve work on projects at a local food bank, on a trail in Bellevue Memorial Park, in painting curbs and the exteriors of businesses whose owners want a fresh coat of paint on Lincoln Avenue, in fixing the gazebo at Bayne Park and in other tasks.

    It is hoped Improve The Vue will become a recurring event, Rev. Gohn said. It also is meant to bring together a pool of volunteers from which to recruit for other volunteer-based community projects, the pastor said.

    In coordination with the event, Pittsburgh Trails volunteers will work with Bellevue volunteers on the trail in Bellevue Memorial Park.

    “They are breaking ground that day. We will focus a lot of our volunteers there,” Rev. Gohn said.

    Volunteers are encouraged to register through the Improve The Vue website, but late arrivals can register the day of the event, starting at 7 a.m. at the registration table in Bayne Park. Part of the thinking behind the day is to show the power of volunteerism, Rev. Gohn said. “We’re trying to increase the livability of Bellevue,” he said.

    Longtime Bellevue resident Paul Cusick, current borough treasurer, isn’t a member of the Initiative but regularly attends its meetings. He’s optimistic about Improve The Vue, which is being publicized through fliers, a banner in the business district, and word of mouth.

    Those interested in joining can get more information or register at

    “Improve The Vue is putting a lot of good elements of Bellevue out front. Everyone benefits from this,” Mr. Cusick said.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633