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2015 Policy Summit: Seeing East Liberty

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By bus and by foot, dozens participating in a recent Federal Reserve Policy Summit see what reinvestment has done for a Pittsburgh neighborhood.

It’s 9:16 on Thursday morning, and the bus is headed to the east end of Pittsburgh. To the left, in the distance, are rolling hills dotted with homes. Immediately to the right of the road stands the occasional boarded-up, graffiti-scrawled property.

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East Liberty tour
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This busload of people came to see urban revitalization with their own eyes in the East Liberty neighborhood, a place that, in decades past, had been decimated by population loss. Once one of Pennsylvania’s 3 major economic centers, East Liberty suffered years of blight and disinvestment.

The scene is different today.

9:23 a.m.

Most of the roughly 40 people taking in this locale through the windows of the bus and via stops along the way don’t hail from around here. Detroit, Atlanta, Little Rock, and Asheville, these are some of the places they call home.

East Liberty

So, Ernie Hogan, executive director of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, gives them a primer.

“These are some of the low rises that are left,” Hogan says of buildings the bus passes. “The high-rise in front of you [the Highland building] was vacant for 20 years and is now market-rate apartments.”

To the right, a crane is visible, its massive arm active in the sky.

This work, Hogan explains, has involved philanthropy, financial institutions, and government.

Previous, well-intentioned but destructive urban renewal projects in the 1960s did not succeed in enabling East Liberty to compete with the suburbs and to stem its losses, Hogan says. Today, though, home ownership in and around East Liberty is increasing, and home prices are climbing.

A bus rider wants to know: Does Pittsburgh have any requirements for affordable housing, in terms of percentages within buildings?

No, Hogan replies. But a commission has been formed by city council and the mayor’s office, “so we start to test [and get] the right framework in place to make sure we’re accommodating all income strata.”

9:34 a.m.

“The building that you’re in is a poster child of what appears to be displacement,” Skip Schwab, deputy director for East Liberty Development, Inc., tells the tourists, now gathered in the Target store in East Liberty. There are protestors across the street holding signs that urge, “Black Homes Matter.”

The Target stands in the location of a former high-rise. Outside, workers in neon construction gear are at work on a redesign of the East Liberty transit station, where ridership has increased 16 percent compared to 2014, year to date.

East Liberty’s “renaissance,” tour guides conceded earlier, is not felt equally by all residents. It’s a work in progress and a learning experience.

A member of the audience points to the paper handed him by a protestor. He asks, “How do you keep things affordable for people while bringing greater wealth into an area?”

“Thirty-nine percent of occupied units in East Liberty are subsidized affordable units,” Schwab replies. “There is a lot of affordable rental housing. We have more affordable units now than before the high-rises were demolished.”

That said, Schwab acknowledges that not only does East Liberty have increased supply, it has increased demand, as well.

As for the building behind the redevelopment, Schwab explains it was important to afford opportunities to East Liberty’s people.

“We worked with subs [subcontractors] and contractors to ensure we were getting local residents for construction,” he explains.

9:43 a.m.

Mark Minnerly expounds upon that point.

The director of real estate and a project partner at the Mosites Company, Minnerly managed an investment program that yielded more than $200 million in new investment in Pittsburgh’s distressed neighborhoods.

We negotiated with tenants, he explains, to tell us who they’d be hiring so we could get residents ready for those jobs.

First-source hiring agreements were a part of developments such as Whole Foods Market, Hogan later notes, and were “a huge win for the neighborhood.”

10:06 a.m.

East Liberty Mural

The bus passes a mural on the way to a place where lots and lots of crackers were once baked.

“I’ve been a city resident basically all my life,” Joseph Ott says, standing in the front of the moving bus. “We used to go to the suburbs to do our shopping.

“It [the development] has been a huge benefit for all city residents,” concludes Ott, a senior policy analyst with the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

It is this—the development in East Liberty of retail that sells everyday needs—that had Naheed Huq talking after the tour.

“The focus on providing retail that serves everyday needs, I thought that was really strong,” says Huq, manager of talent and economic development for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments in Detroit. “It’s very nice to have boutique stores, things that attract outsiders, visitors, but when you can provide a service to local people, I think that makes a stronger community. One of the [Target] employees was saying there was nothing there 20 years ago, and now he’s able to do all his shopping in the local community. Those sorts of things make a lot of difference.”

10:29 a.m.

What stands where a Nabisco factory used to is named Bakery Square, and it’s home today to hundreds of Google employees, plus other commercial tenants.

“This is a textbook example of how the public-private partnership can flourish,” begins Todd Reidbord, principal and president of Walnut Capital, which developed Bakery Square.

Standing at the front of a room in Google office space, Reidbord notes, “when Google jumps in, others tend to follow.”

“Today, there are probably 2,000 people working here,” he adds of Bakery Square. “At the max, Nabisco had 300 to 400 people working here. So it’s probably 4 or 5 times the amount of employment. That number is staggering.”

If Huq and others came to glean what types of amenities entice the likes of Google to bring hundreds of jobs to a place, they are in luck: Michelle Martin tackles the subject.

A recruiting pipeline, such as that afforded to Pittsburgh by Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, is important, says Martin, community affairs lead at the Google Pittsburgh office. So, too, is the existence of other employers that provide career opportunities to the spouses and partners of Google employees, plus proximity to residential areas. 

“We are always hiring as many good engineers as we can in Pittsburgh,” Martin explains. “A lot of them live in the approximate area.”

East Liberty Mural

And a majority of the residents who’ve moved into Bakery Square weren’t poached from nearby neighborhoods. About 70 percent of the people living in the 175 new apartment units there are new to the state, Reidbord says.

“It’s really a place that attracted real, true growth,” he adds. “You’re actually bringing new people into Pennsylvania.

“You have to create the right amenities,” Reidbord says. “We looked at every tool in the toolbox.”

Next up is Bakery Square 2.0, which will bring on-line another new apartment building in June 2016. Also in the works is a proposal for a new Bakery Square transit center.

11:05 a.m.

The tour has moved to the upper level of a parking garage where license plates seemingly prove Reidbord’s point about people moving here from out of state. There’s a plate from Georgia. One from Wisconsin. Another, Texas.

Paul Svoboda, special projects manager with the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, points out a swath of land that lies between two church steeples. This, he tells the tourists, is Larimer, a nearby neighborhood that’s suffered, too, from disinvestment.

Substantial investment in Larimer is needed.

Svoboda speaks to a central point of the tour: The work in the 15206 zip code is not done, but there are lessons for others to take with them off the bus.

East Liberty developers worked with residents of the area, offering them financial literacy training and workforce development, Hogan explains. Residents needed to be long-term, committed partners in the work here—not engaged in some one-and-done way. A tenant council helped keep those involved in the area’s revitalization connected to them.

“That’s not always the case in every neighborhood, that kind of level of engagement,” Hogan says.

Maintaining affordable housing for the long term through tools such as land trusts and financing mechanisms is something other cities should explore, he adds. So, too, is creating a true mix of housing so that people earning a high income aren’t prevented by income limits from living in units in a place like East Liberty.

Kwanza Hall departed the tour thinking about how what’s happening in East Liberty—specifically, the current conversion of a YMCA to an Ace Hotel—could be replicated in Atlanta, which is home to a closed YMCA.

“I would love to see it converted,” said Hall, an Atlanta city councilmember. “I want to find out more about the economics of that deal and see if there are some things we can do to model after that. To see a group taking a YMCA in another city . . . and converting it to a boutique hotel, the idea that it actually can get done—I’m like, ‘Wow, why can’t we do this?’ That’s very encouraging to me.”

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