The Diamond Market is one of many Pittsburgh businesses with a facade renovated through the URA's program.

Take a walk through Allentown or Garfield, the Cultural District or Lawrenceville; head for the North Side or the Hill or Homewood and chances are you’ll see a building that’s been refurbished thanks to the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) four facade improvement programs.

“Facade improvement” might not sound riveting, but Tom Link, director of the URA’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, says the point of the programs is to make the fabric of the city feel good.

“When we think about what gives a neighborhood district vibrancy: how do you feel when you walk down the street? Does it look nice? Does it feel safe? Part of the spirit of the program is to make neighborhoods feel like places you want to be in,” he says. “It’s an investment in the public realm.”

While a business or building owner may want to install all new windows or invest in new signage, doing so can be prohibitively expensive. Link says that’s why funding for the facade improvement programs is so important: the monies enable projects that are crucial to the city’s well-being and wouldn’t otherwise happen.

Quianna Wasler, the Mainstreets Development Specialist who coordinates the facade improvement programs, says changing how a building looks is not just about improving street aesthetics but promoting economic growth.

“If you’re a retail business in this Internet age, your storefront is your billboard–people are Googling your address, pulling up a picture. If someone has never been there and doesn’t like what they see, they’re not going to go in.”

The facade improvement programs are available to almost everyone, from owners of historic buildings to independent businesses and individual homeowners; location determines specific program eligibility. The process goes like this: An applicant presents a facade plan for review by the URA’s architect against the agency’s design guidelines. Both parties agree to a vision and the URA issues a letter of commitment. Depending on the program, the agency may invest via grants, a forgivable loan or a loan to be repaid at the sale of a building. Funding for facade improvement comes from a variety of sources, including Community Development Block Grant funding, some state money, and most reliably, one percent of any Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District.

Over the last ten years the URA has invested $5.4 million to complete 331 facade renovations. More importantly, says Link, that money attracted more than $101 million in other private and public funds.

“We are not in the business of replacing or competing with private capital. The idea is for us to leverage it, to help bring private capital to individual projects.”

Wasler says the URA has been so successful in leveraging their investment that representatives of cities such as Los Angeles, Calif., Austin, Texas and Columbus, Ohio have called to see how they can emulate the program.

“You’re activating a building that hasn’t been on the tax rolls for years and you have control over design,” she says. “It’s a tool for encouraging private property owners to make your city or your neighborhood or your street as attractive as possible.”

Moving forward, Wasler and Link hope to expand the programs’ reach and educate new neighborhoods about what facade improvement can do for them.

“When you see some of these great things, they don’t happen serendipitously. It takes a motivated property owner, a motivated community group, and a variety of leadership to encourage the funding of these programs,” says Link. “We talk about helping buildings and streets and places but ultimately we’re helping people.”

In other facade improvement news, the Colcom Foundation yesterday awarded $350,000 to the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership to continue its Paris to Pittsburgh program, which enables facade renovations and outdoor dining activations. Downtown business or building owners can apply for a 50 percent matching grant up to $30,000 for exterior facade work. Since 2007, the program has invested $1.7 million in 73 projects that brought in over $4.6 million in private investment.

Margaret J. Krauss is a writer, radio producer, and researcher. If not biking Pittsburgh's streets or swimming its rivers, she is likely geeking out about a really good story.