Pittsburgh’s cultural and economic revitalization seems to always be in the news. A good deal of the city’s neighborhood-level transformation has resulted from citizen involvement channeled through a unique type of nonprofit called a community development corporation (CDC).
The CDC concept took hold among American urban planners in the 1970s as a way to efficiently connect community needs to municipal resources.
A CDC’s mission is to help its affiliated neighborhood or commercial district devise programs that foster affordable housing, economic development, increased public safety, improved social services and planning for future growth. As a community undergoes change, the CDC strives to guide that change to benefit residents and businesses.
Formed in 1990, Mount Washington Community Development Corporation (MWCDC) was an early Pittsburgh CDC. Three decades later, it still plays an important role as a sounding board for the concerns of 11,000 residents, approximately 275 businesses and an estimated 1.2 million annual visitors to Grandview Avenue and Emerald View Park.
Gordon Davidson has served as the organization’s executive director since March 2018. A Peters Township native, he graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with Bachelor of Architecture and Bachelor of Science in Building Science degrees and later earned a Master of Science in Public Policy & Management degree from Carnegie Mellon University’s H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management.
His career arc spans positions with the National Recycling Coalition, National Information Technology Center and Pittsburgh Technology Council, in addition to consulting for NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense.
That and 20-plus years of hands-on experience in home remodeling and new home construction give Davidson a solid grounding to handle issues posed by complex rehabilitation projects.
Davidson’s interest in community development started as an undergrad in Troy, New York. Several of his courses were focused on local government efforts to upgrade housing and infrastructure development.
“My final graduation project studied design and use codes in Pittsburgh,” he recalls.
A few years later he was working in the technology management and transfer field and couldn’t help but notice that “there were always references to interesting things happening in Pittsburgh, new trends and new solutions for urban planning challenges.”
NEXTpittsburgh spoke with Davidson about some of the challenges an urban CDC is likely to face in the near future.
NEXTpittsburgh: MWCDC serves two neighborhoods, Mount Washington and Duquesne Heights?
Gordon Davidson: Two neighborhoods, one community. That was determined by the people who originally created the MWCDC, deciding how big their service area was going to be.
NEXTpittsburgh: What brought about the creation of this particular CDC?
Davidson: Until MWCDC was chartered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, there was no single unified community voice equipped to deal with government entities, foundations, developers and other organizations needed to address the neighborhood’s future.
In the late 1980s, Michelle Madoff was the Pittsburgh City Council representative for Mount Washington and Duquesne Heights. Her staffer Bill Urbanic helped residents and businesses realize their varying interests could be best served by establishing an independent nonprofit focused on economic development. For the first time, Mount Washington and Duquesne Heights had a recognized community organization to represent them.
NEXTpittsburgh: Is the MWCDC still largely community-based?
Davidson: We are entirely community-based. The board of directors is entirely from the community, either as residents or business owners. We hold monthly forums on topics of interest to residents and businesses, and several board committees are open to community members. We encourage the community to give input we can evaluate in the process of making decisions.
NEXTpittsburgh: What sort of things has the CDC brought to Mount Washington?
Davidson: First, it’s important to remember that a CDC is focused on the development and specifically development that impacts many sectors of the community. That ranges from brick-and-mortar upgrades like parking garages and parklets to outdoor sculpture, signage and landscaping, as well as coordinating new housing and business structures.
The Shiloh Parking Plaza, Gateway Arch and part of Firemen’s Park on Shiloh were MWCDC projects. So was the gazebo and welcome garden at the McArdle/Merrimac intersection.
In its early days, the CDC was involved in helping developers find ways to repurpose vacant structures into new uses like senior housing or lofts — Wesley Towers, Prospect School, Boggs Avenue School, South Hills High School, St. Mary of the Mount School.
We’ve also helped convert numerous individual properties into viable single-family housing and business structures, often partnering with Pittsburgh Housing Development Corporation.
The community has also told us they feel it’s important to find support for basic quality-of-life property improvements. We maintain a comprehensive Property Disposition and Acquisition Plan supplemented by our Yard Improvement Program and Front Door Program and other curb appeal programs.
This year we’re introducing the Grab Bar and Handrail Installation Program for low-to-moderate income senior and disabled homeowners, which is part of a Neighborhood Partnership Program grant we received.
NEXTpittsburgh: Business recruitment has been a big part of the effort?
Davidson: We encouraged several retailers like Rite Aid, Shop ’n Save and Grandview Bakery to come into or stay in the neighborhood. These are often anchor institutions for a community and a huge asset in attracting other new businesses, homebuyers and visitors. We have a Business Advisory Council that helps us review and develop plans for marketing local businesses.
NEXTpittsburgh: How did MWCDC come to play a lead role in establishing Emerald View Park?
Davidson: It was an extraordinary vision for its time back in the early 2000s, and we had dedicated, passionate board members and community folks who drove it forward every bit of the way. Think about the sheer scope — creating a 257-acre regional park linking Mount Washington, Duquesne Heights, South Side, Allentown and Beechview in a 19-mile network of stunning wilderness trails and awe-inspiring views of Pittsburgh’s rivers and skyline.
Reclaiming this green space for public use involved tens of thousands of volunteer hours in planning and cleanup, along with generous fiscal support from foundations and the City of Pittsburgh. Since 2016, MWCDC has partnered with Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy to promote Emerald View Park and visualize future enhancements. In 2021 we received funding from the Richard King Mellon Foundation to perform trail repair and invasive plant management planning throughout the park system.
NEXTpittsburgh: What are the biggest challenges for MWCDC in the near future?
Davidson: The first challenge for any CDC is that those challenges are always changing. We identify them by putting together a strategic plan every five years, and our board of directors has nearly completed the 2023-2028 plan. It’s a process where we identify problems as well as opportunities and present them to the neighborhood to comment on if they want.
In the coming months, we want to get more information for low-income residents about available social services. We want to better assist our businesses in advocating their needs to local government departments. There is an ongoing list of beautification projects, along with improvements like converting utilities to go underground on west Grandview Avenue as well as revisioning the Boggs/Bailey/Wyoming business area. And it’s always a major challenge to find funding to accomplish the goals the strategic plan puts forth.
NEXTpittsburgh: As we edge out of the Covid pandemic, has 2022 been a busier year than others?
Davidson: 2022 has been the busiest year since I began at MWCDC in 2018. Currently, the MWCDC staff and board are involved in close to 80 active external projects. We’re starting a new Community Needs Survey, undertaking our first demographic data analysis and initiating a Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise post-incubator project. The VFW Street Banners Project is going into its second phase. We have applied for a federal Scenic Byways grant to create a Grand View Scenic Byway entry garden and have six other proposals awaiting funding decisions.
NEXTpittsburgh: It sounds like a CDC has to always be ready to pivot.
Davidson: Predicting what changes a community will have to face to keep thriving is never a sure thing. Having a CDC that can keep the people involved in that change process is an essential first step.