Photo courtesy of Millvale Borough.

Last week, the Power of 32 Site Development Fund announced a $9.6 million loan to jumpstart construction on Riverfront 47, a 30-acre brownfield redevelopment project located on the Allegheny River in Sharpsburg.

While the project is still in its earliest phases, the vision for Riverfront 47 is a mixed-use commercial and residential development that will bring in new residents and boost the local economy. The Downtown-based real estate firm The Mosites Company is overseeing the development.

“It’s exciting to see the development of this former private industrial site take such an important step forward in site preparation,” says Brittany Reno, executive director of the Sharpsburg Neighborhood Organization. “I’m eager to collaborate with the community and the development team to ensure that the park and trail meaningfully reconnect all of our residents to their riverfront and that the development includes housing, businesses and other amenities that are affordable and accessible to all Sharpsburgers.”

For some development experts, the announcement was yet more evidence that the smaller boroughs on the Allegheny — like Millvale, Etna and Sharpsburg — are poised to absorb business and population growth from the rapidly developing neighborhoods just across the bridge.

“There’s absolutely a ton of potential,” says Lance Chimka, director of economic development for Allegheny County. “Especially as some of the real estate market gets saturated in the Strip and Lawrenceville, the path of least resistance is over the river.”

There have been notable additions to the local small business community in the last several years, such as Iron Born Pizza, Tazza D’oro and Tupelo Honey Teas joining Grist House Craft Brewery in Millvale.

And this week, 412 Food Rescue and Sprezzatura Café announced the opening of the Millvale Kitchen, which will serve as a hub for volunteer and community engagement, and a place to store and handle their influx of perishable foods.

Butler & Freeport St. Etna
Butler and Freeport Streets in Etna. Photo by Tom O’Connor.
Butler and Freeport Streets in Etna. Photo by Tom O’Connor.

Meanwhile, Sharpsburg is home to the popular Dancing Gnome and Hitchhiker breweries, not to mention the award-winning innovation studio and advertising agency Deeplocal. Etna recently welcomed fashion designer Kiya Tomlin.

“You’ve got fantastic communities, solid housing stock, interesting retail spaces, and then you also have the culture amenities like Mr. Smalls, trail and river access, a lot of cool amenities,” says Chimka, whose office is assisting in the planning for Riverfront 47.

And yet here’s what’s really interesting: While these new developments, large and small, have been cheered by local stakeholders, a growing network of community groups along the river is also working to make sure the new prosperity is evenly shared. Concerns about the possibility of gentrification or excessively rapid growth are getting attention.

Scott Wolovich, executive director of the Millvale-based community organization New Sun Rising, tells NEXTpittsburgh that the dramatic growth of the city neighborhoods just across the river is in some respects a cautionary tale.

“The magnitude of investment in the East End was difficult for anyone to navigate, except those with the resources and privilege to do so,” says Wolovich. “This left many stakeholders out of the decision-making process — and unfortunately, disconnected from the economic opportunity of revitalization.”

To help manage the impact of new developments, New Sun Rising has joined with other community organizations in Etna and Sharpsburg in a partnership known as the Triboro Ecodistrict, which allows local leaders to connect and coordinate on shared goals for the area. Among those goals are improved access to the city’s trails and public transit, as well as street resurfacing and other infrastructure upgrades.

But the shared communication can also help tackle questions about these neighborhoods’ futures and their growing popularity, with a focus on the lives of long-time residents.

“Developing a community plan, which is inclusive of and guided by residents, is a more authentic path to sustainable economic growth that strengthens the middle class,” Wolovich says. “Not only are we seeing businesses and jobs return to these under-resourced communities, but there is a sense of identity and inspiration which builds trust, momentum and investments moving forward.”

In an interview with NEXTpittsburgh, Chimka praised the multi-municipal cooperation underway along the river and said such community and social networks will be key to growing the local economy.

“A lot of the smaller, more grassroots projects underway are every bit as important as the big real estate development projects,” says Chimka. “They’re all important pieces for the community revitalization story.”

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.