The trademark bathtub in the middle of the living room is the giveaway, reminding us that James Simon’s digs once housed more than a decade of the Gist Street Reading Series.
Sure the readings were fun, back in the early years of the century, drawing overflow crowds, showcasing talent, attracting writers from all over the country. But they were also created by Simon, and writer Sherrie Flick, to bring people to Uptown.
Back then, the community was awash in pimps, pushers and prostitutes; abandoned properties and shooting galleries; buzz-in-only businesses; Mercy Hospital and Duquesne University. And an ocean of cars that flowed by too fast to notice.
Simon, creator of outsized, cartoonish, often music-themed public sculptures—947 Liberty Avenue, for instance and the Duquesne University parking garage mural—thought that poetry and public art would make people stop.
“People thought I was crazy,” he recalls. “Uptown wasn’t pretty.”
While the Gist St. Readings discontinued years ago, progress in Uptown is greater than ever. It’s what planners call a quilted community, a complex mix of retrofitted residences and incubator spaces, major institutions and light industry with housing—some blighted, some with architectural charm—and underserved residents.
It’s a community ripe for renovation. And it’s what’s next for Uptown that is so intriguing.
Comprised of 200-odd acres, including 25 acres of street-level parking lots, Uptown is defined by the Crosstown ramps and the Birmingham Bridge, the Boulevard of the Allies and Colwell Street. In between there are some 800 permanent residents—10 times that number with Mercy Hospital patients and Duquesne University students. Fifty times with overflow hockey or concert crowds.
Anchored by Mercy Hospital, Duquesne University and the new Consol Energy Center, development is thrumming. As one indicator, there’s the new Blue Line Grille, Uptown’s first first-rate restaurant since Fifth Avenue’s thriving mercantile days of a half-century ago.
Even more promising: Work is underway on the Flats on Fifth, 74 market-rate apartments to be completed in 2016 which follows the recent renovation of Fifth Avenue School Lofts, 65 market-rate apartments and Action Housing’s Mackey Lofts, 43 affordable housing units, including an entire floor for the disabled.
With those developments, a general move back to cities and a special planning designation, Uptown is rising again. “People are seeing Uptown as a good place,” says Simon. “It’s very exciting.”
Uptown was just designated by the City as an Eco-Innovation District, a planning process which involves stakeholders of all stripes. “The EcoDistrict planning process is really about first establishing a governance model, creating a forum where all parties can come to common agreement,” Pittsburgh’s Sustainability Manager Grant Ervin told NEXTpittsburgh in an article about the designation.
The Uptown Eco-Innovation District will employ emerging technologies, adhere to human-scale developments and equitable land use and seek sustainability in all things.
“Uptown,” offers architect Christine Mondor, evolveEA principal and a highly interested party, “is ripe for this kind of thinking, this kind of process. She notes that the neighborhood has traditionally been seen as a pass-through between Oakland and Downtown. “But with the arts and the incubators, people are now beginning to see Uptown as a unique place. They’re seeing it as a neighborhood that could be something.
“Start with the idea that it’s a front row seat to a view,” Mondor says, referring to the Monongahela Valley stretched out below. “Then add this nice mix of small, affordable houses, multi-family dwellings, lofts and incubators. And the anchors on the western edge. That’s a good platform to build on.”
In April, Mondor and others took that platform a step farther. As a part of Pittsburgh’s p4 Conference (for People, Planet, Place and Performance), Mondor led a group tour through Uptown and then facilitated a discussion about the possibilities of transforming the neighborhood later presented to the conference attendees. One advantage of the community that was cited was the number of startups moved in, due to two unique work spaces.
Like a lot of things in Uptown, Fifth Avenue’s StartUptown, a community-based co-working space, used to be a lot of other things, including an Elks Hall, chiropractic college and coffin and hearse showroom.
If nothing else, Uptown and its buildings are made for adaptive reuse which, to hear Dale McNutt tell it, is the community’s great strength—and its future.
“Uptown was a no-brainer for me 23 years ago,” he says. Moving his design business from Fort Pitt Boulevard, he found the location between Oakland and Downtown ideal. “While I was comfortable with the environment,” he says, “back then it was tough to get people to work here.” And yet, “when artists move into an underserved community,” McNutt says, “all they see is potential.”
He and his wife, artist Jeanne McNutt, moved in a decade ago, buying a large, rambling corner building in the heart of Uptown. They renovated extensively and he began StartUptown in the same building as a hands-on incubator. “I wanted to be useful to the world,” McNutt says. “I wanted to surround myself with young entrepreneurs, to help them prosper, help them see how to do good in the world.”
StartUptown attracted scores of proactive people and budding businesses into this space. Following that success, last year, Rick Schweikert and Alexander Denmarsh partnered in buying and renovating the recently opened Paramount Film Exchange as a coworking space on the Boulevard of the Allies. (At the opening party, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said if you want to invest in an up-and-coming neighborhood, Uptown is the place.)
The startups and business in both places have scored notable successes—and the founders have in turn enthusiastically sold the community. “We’ve had a great diversity of companies—and people—that is really satisfying,” McNutt says.
“With the push coming from our institutional partners,” McNutt says, “Uptown is only going to accelerate. But people in the community are also driving development. StartUptown and others are bringing entrepreneurs into an underdeveloped area. They come here because they like getting in on the ground floor, being part of something bigger, building community.”
Increasingly, McNutt says, “people want to live in this incredible place. We can walk to the South Side, Downtown, the Cultural District, PNC Park. Within five miles there are six major universities and world-class hospitals.” He pauses. “This is a location with a lot of umph to it.”
As his wife, Jeanne McNutt, says, “”We wanted to become what [urbanologist] Jane Jacobs calls ‘a community of choice, not chance.’” She co-formed Uptown Partners, for the first time giving the community greater visibility—and a voice. Early victories: a community garden, play lot, tree plantings. They may seem small, but bright spots of color can begin the snowball that becomes an avalanche.
“We want to be more than a corridor,” says Jeanne, an avid gardener. “We want to be a place where people will stop.”
“Now our question is,” says Dale, “how do we further re-invest in this community that has this sense of place to it?”
One way to encourage re-investment is to look at a community through a different lens. It’s not re-branding, but redefining—boundaries, purposes, processes—and that’s where the Eco-Innovation District designation comes in.
“Let’s rethink Uptown’s boundaries, north and south, east and west,” suggests Mondor. “What if we extended the community via light rail from Downtown to Hazelwood? How about a people mover from the Monongahela River up the Hill? How would our resources flow?”
She gestures: there are 16 lanes of traffic (Boulevard of the Allies, Parkway East, the Eliza Furnace Trail, Amtrak) separating Uptown from the river. What if terraces were constructed, effectively putting all vehicles underground? Then create new real estate—parks, housing, cafes—down to the water’s edge?
Is this within the realm of possibility?
Mondor shrugs. “Who would’ve thought we’d be where we are now?” she asks.
Keeping it real
While much is underway, one goal is to be inclusive, says Jeanne McNutt who is calling for “great spaces for underserved populations. We don’t want to gentrify.”
With ACTION-Housing involved with dozens of affordable units and in-fill houses springing up and on the drawing board, the Uptown Preservation Project is fighting blight, vacancy and tax delinquency. But there’s more they’re after.
They also want a Giant Eagle-type Get-Go; a boutique hotel; an enhanced market-style grocery; even high-rise residential buildings—think of the views!—all providing a vibrant mix of activity.
“When we go through the Eco-Innovation District planning we’ll see what our benchmarks will be,” McNutt adds. “Maybe 3,000 people? We’ll think boldly. And make sure that all developments benefit everyone. Right now, we’re at the first step.”
All photos by Brian Cohen.