Lauren Byrne always wanted to work in community development. Her East End upbringing and her grandmother Aggie Brose, deputy director of The Bloomfield Garfield Corporation, laid the foundation for her. Armed with experience in Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s office of Neighborhood Initiatives, she became the executive director of Lawrenceville United at age 25 in 2010.
“I had the opportunity to come to Lawrenceville, and given how diverse the neighborhood was and all the different types of things I would have the opportunity to work on, I jumped at that chance,” she says.
No regrets so far. The transformation of Lawrenceville is nothing short of remarkable. We talked with Lauren about how the community made it happen.
What strategies did community leaders adopt that led to the success of Lawrenceville’s revitalization?
It was multi-pronged. We had many dedicated residents and volunteers. In the early 2000s, Lawrenceville was a different place. We had experienced significant vacancy and blight, and that was breeding crime and quality of life issues. There were a number of residents and volunteers who got together and said, “we’re not going to let this happen on our block.” They started really robust block watches. They were working with police and re-purposing blighted vacant lots into community gardens. That set a foundation creating a clean and safe neighborhood. Then business owners were able to build off of that as well. So we had the residents that were working to stabilize the residential corridor and we had pioneering, creative entrepreneurs that were coming in. Lawrenceville’s commercial real estate was affordable. So we had creative people who were able to take risks along the business district corridor.
What was their biggest challenge over the years for the renovation of Lawrenceville?
Staying focused on long-term goals and also trying to figure out some short-term things we could do to keep people motivated and keep people believing in our community vision and community plans. Balancing the business district with the residential corridor–making sure they are coexisting peacefully and with a shared vision for the growth of the neighborhood–has been a challenge. It’s been something they’ve embraced, and they’ve figured out ways to make it happen.
How were you able to attract so many independent stores and no chains?
There have been a few really cool and creative marketing strategies. Many artists and creative thinkers have found a place in Lawrenceville, and they wanted to attract more people like themselves. The 16:62 Design Zone was a marketing strategy that spanned from 16th street in The Strip District out to 62nd street in Lawrenceville. That specifically raised awareness that The Strip District and Lawrenceville were places where artists and creative people were welcome. I do think that we have a number of small business owners that are ambassadors for finding other business owners. They bring them in to Lawrenceville, and they’ve supported them as they worked to create their business.
What’s in store for Lawrenceville’s future?
Right now we’re really working to preserve the diversity that attracted so many people to the neighborhood. We’re seeing escalating real estate values in both the residential and commercial corridor so we’re starting to think about how we can preserve affordability and some creative ways we can do that. How can we help the small business owners purchase the buildings they are in? How can we make sure that long-time residents are staying in their homes and young professionals are still able to live there? We’re going to be working with our partners at the Lawrenceville Corporation on some creative strategies around affordability.
We also have oriented ourselves to thinking about connections to the riverfront. We have large tracks of underutilized land along the Allegheny River. How can we reconnect the business district and residential core back to the river? There’s a plan for the Allegheny Riverfront Green Boulevard Plan which is a multi-modal transportation plan that could run right along the riverfront that would provide bike and pedestrian trails that would really activate that riverfront.
Do you think real estate prices will continue to rise at recent rates?
Our real estate values have almost tripled over the last eight years so I’m not sure how much higher they can go. I think they are stabilizing. We’re hoping to find ways to keep a variety of incomes and real estate prices in the neighborhood.
What advice do you have for community leaders in other neighborhoods who are striving for the same success?
We create these 25-year plans. What is really important is making sure you have some short-term goals and actionable visible projects that people can see to keep them motivated and keep them working towards those long-term goals—that balance of interests in a community. We have industrial uses, we have a large commercial district. We have long-term and new residents. Make sure community leaders are providing a forum where all of those stakeholders are able to voice opinions and provide input to drive those plans.
What’s your favorite thing to do in Lawrenceville?
I grew up right around here so I love walking along Butler Street. The topography in Lawrenceville and the views from some of the hills, like the top of 54th street, are amazing. I enjoy being out in the neighborhood, having conversations about its history and what’s happening now.