National Main Street Center conference attendees tour East Carson Street on the South Side. Photo by Josette Fitzgibbons

Taking urban planners to Pittsburgh’s South Side for a walking tour is nothing like organizing a day trip for tourists, says Josette Fitzgibbons.

As one of the country’s first urban demonstration Main Street programs after the steel industry collapse in the 1980s, the South Side’s historic East Carson Street business district has become iconic to Main Street professionals, says Fitzgibbons, neighborhood business district manager for the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA).

The South Side’s history, its active nightlife district and the large-scale brownfield redevelopment at SouthSide Works attracted many curious attendees of the recent national Main Street Now Conference for a tour aptly labeled, “Over the Top: From a Successful Main Street Revitalization to an (Overly) Active Nightlife District.”

“You’re showing the great things in the business district but also talking about what didn’t workwhat were your obstacles, why is that storefront still vacant, why are you having a hard time with that,” Fitzgibbons says of the tour. “They were able to get a picture of where the neighborhood is todayall of the really great things in the South Side and the issues we face with the nighttime economy. It’s giving them the whole picture. These folks want to be able to go back with new ideas or strategies.”

The South Side tour was one of 20 organized by the URA, the mayor’s office and the Allegheny County Department of Economic Development for the 1,600 participants at the Main Street conferencethe first that Pittsburgh has hosted for the organization since the late 1990s, says Fitzgibbons. The bus and walking tours took the planners to 26 city neighborhoods and 22 surrounding communities.

“We sat down and brainstormed: Which are the communities doing a lot of good workwhich are all of them here in Pittsburgh, but maybe I’m a little biasedand how can we organize them into groups so we get participants out to see as many communities as they can.”

Main Street professionals listen to a presentation at City of Asylum. Photo by Josette Fitzgibbons
Main Street professionals listen to a presentation at City of Asylum. Photo by Josette Fitzgibbons.

A morning spent in McKees Rocks, Carnegie and the West End, for example, profiled three communities in differing stages of revitalization. McKees Rocks is working to overcome a reconfigured street grid to accommodate a strip mall. Carnegie is focused on attracting new businesses, restaurants and art to its business district, and the South West Pittsburgh Community Development Corporation for the West End and other communities is a relatively new organization still building its framework.

“We got great feedback,” Fitzgibbons says. “Folks liked the fact that they had a range of people to talk to on the tours, giving a whole picture of what’s happening in a community. The worst complaint I heard was that there wasn’t enough time after the morning session to get on the bus for the tour.”

For the organizers, making sure the 56-passenger buses could negotiate neighborhood streets and find room to park “was a little bit of a challenge, because it is Pittsburgh,” she says. One tour, limited to 20 people, took the Main Street professionals on a light rail ride to Beechview, Dormont and Mt. Lebanonthree more business districts in varying stages of redevelopment.

Atlas Development Co. will develop several properties along Broadway Avenue in Beechview. Photo by Sandra Tolliver
Atlas Development Co. will develop several properties along Broadway Avenue in Beechview. Photo by Sandra Tolliver.

In Beechview, developer Daniel Berkowitz with Atlas Development Co. has promised the URA that he will complete several projects along the 1600 block of Broadway Avenue in 2017a boutique hotel, a jazz club and a restaurant. A commercial building at 1619 Broadway will house Atlas’ offices and have space for neighborhood businesses. The city also is building a senior center on Broadway.

If she had a magic wand, Fitzgibbons would make sure these projects and many others happen in neighborhood business districts across the city by adding staff on the ground.

“My magic wand would have dollars in it,” she says.

State funding cuts of 60 percent mean Pennsylvania communities that don’t have Main Street designation no longer get money for Main Street managers. The money that’s available, now through Keystone Communities, is project-based. Pittsburgh hasn’t tried to get Main Street designation for any of its neighborhoods because the planning process costs money with no guarantee of funding at the end, Fitzgibbons says.

The URA does use the Main Street program’s four-point approach: design, organization, promotion and economic restructuring. “It’s the best model for business district revitalization,” she says. “You have to be paying attention to all of those points; you can’t just put in new streetlights and think that’s all you have to do, or say, ‘I’ve got a great restaurant coming in and, OK, we’re done.’ We also have a pretty strong historic preservation component to the work that we do.”

The URA makes available $5,000 matching grants to renovate commercial building facades anywhere in the city, and has a $30,000 matching grant program available for storefronts in targeted business districts. Fitzgibbons is proud of what’s been done so farand what’s ongoing in Beechview, Homewood, Wilkinsburg and other communities.

“We have a beautiful city,” she says. “And we have community development corporations that I believe are head and shoulders above other cities, doing so much good work in their business districts and communities.”

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.