Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, April 13, 2015

One hidden element of the revitalization of Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood

The East Liberty neighborhood in Pittsburgh is an interesting urban revitalization case study.

First, it was one of many examples from around the country of using urban renewal to make over and "improve" a neighborhood.  Like most examples of urban renewal, it failed, culminating in the demolition of much of the housing that had been built less than 30 years before and a search for a new solution.

Second, a lot of people in the revitalization world use East Liberty as an example of how distressed areas can attract high quality retailers  ("What drives East Liberty's revitalization efforts?," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette , "A Neighborhood's Comeback," Wall Street Journal).

But the opening there of a wide variety of quality retailers (Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Borders--now closed, Target, etc.) happened only because the area is adjacent to two of Pittsburgh's most successful neighborhoods--Squirrel Hill and Shadyside--and in those locations there isn't any available land for large scale commercial development.  (As an aside, because of this, Shadyside is one of the only retail districts with a fair amount of second floor retail.  This is an example I've been meaning to write about as relevant to 8th Street SE in Capitol Hill, DC.)

What was appealing wasn't East Liberty per se, but available land and proximity.  Few other distressed neighborhoods possess this combination of development attractiveness, which makes East Liberty an outlier that's hard to generalize from.    

The East Liberty busway isn't particular attractive and is an example of the failure to consider the importance of transit infrastructure as an element of civic architecture and placemaking.  Wikipedia photo.

Third, Pittsburgh has some of the nation's first bus rapid transit lines, which opened in the 1980s, including service from East Liberty--you can get Downtown by bus in under 15 minutes, but for the most part, these lines never sparked ancillary development or residential recruitment.

(And like most bus rapid transit lines, ridership projections never met expectations, although to be fair, they were introduced when Pittsburgh was at its worst economically--as the steel industry was failing.)

But as retail has improved and the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative to the west continues to plug along attracting "creatives," arts anchors like the Pittsburgh Glass Works, and funky retail and restaurants, the East Liberty neighborhood is improving in its own right.

Ridding a neighborhood of crime by buying crime-ridden properties.  It turns out this has been sparked in large part because of a real estate strategy developed by the neighborhood community development corporation, East Liberty Development Inc. which focused on buying out slumlords and and converting problem properties that had been nodes for crime and disorder.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported ("How did East Liberty become safer? Buying out homes that housed criminals") on this, referencing a study of the program (East Liberty Crime Data Analysis), conducted by a consulting firm, Numeritics, based in the district. From the article:
A map of East Liberty in 2008 shows Negley Avenue running down the length of a curious red blotch between Penn Avenue and East Liberty Boulevard.  By 2012, the red blotch had dimmed to yellow. The change signified a 49 percent drop in the incidence of crime. 
The blotch had covered much of the old residential neighborhood, including Hays, North St. Clair, Mellon and Euclid streets. In the mid-2000s, Eric Jester, then the housing development manager for East Liberty Development Inc., said his and nearby streets were “a steady drumbeat of nonsense. Not just gunfire but street fights, people screaming, hookers propositioning your dinner guests.” He said an identifiable number of properties had reduced quality of life to “an existential threat.” 
“We called the police, but as soon as the police left it started up again,” he said. “We tried code enforcement, we tried yelling, we tried shaming. 
“We finally decided it’s probably better if we owned the properties.” The result of ELDI’s strategic purchase of 200 units from slumlords between 2008 and 2012 is the subject of a 23-page report, released recently by the data analysis firm Numeritics, that reframes East Liberty’s narrative of transformation. ... 
Through the 2000s, ELDI was buying, renovating and replacing properties for mixed-income buyers, but it intensified its efforts in 2008, going after property owners who allowed criminal behavior as long as tenants didn’t complain about lax maintenance.
ELDI’s acquisition of both large and small apartment buildings led to renovations and the hiring of effective property managers and off-duty police officers. At the same time, ELDI kept the same racial composition and low rents, Numeritics reported
According to the report, ELDI acquired about 3% of the residential properties, and according to crime hot spot theory, in problem neighborhoods 3% of properties generate 50% of the crime. While the neighborhood is experiencing rising demand for residential properties and increased prices, there is still plenty of affordable housing.

Safety + location + retail as a winning revitalization combo.  In any case, the redevelopment of the area as a hotbed for retail, and the housing rehabilitation program by ELDI has brought stability to the neighborhood, and it is now in fact, a great example of revitalization ("East Liberty becomes a vibrant community," P-G).

Fundamental to the improvement, as commenter charlie would say, has been to get public safety under control.

One of the people quoted in the article mentions how they used to call 911 all the time, and a couple years ago realized that they had stopped calling because they didn't need to any more.  For example, one of the apartment buildings that ELDI owns and manages now has experienced a 75% drop in incidents.

Ridding a neighborhood of problems by buying and fixing problem properties is a strategy that's extendable.

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At 6:14 PM, Anonymous charlie said...


there was a article last week in the post re: Navy Yard/Southwest and the CRE there.

(Pretty weak)

The developer quote was something to the effect that "well, if you need 100K+ SQ this is the only place.

(besides the new, empty, tower in Rosslyn)

At 9:38 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

saw that piece. We've discussed this broad issue in the blog and in the comment threads, that there is a big reduction in demand for space, especially as law firms consolidate, counter terrorism projects have been done, and Congress makes it very difficult for federal agencies to expand. Plus the general trends supporting shrinkage of space (e.g., with law firms, digitalization eliminating the need for big law libraries, etc.).

I don't remember the article, I think it was on Fannie Mae, but it might have been some GSA-related story.

The revised need for space in some new project is 188 s.f. per employee, 62 s.f. less than the previous rubric.

As that trend multiplies, plus consolidation, the need for space will continue to shrink.

At 9:43 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... at an estate sale last weekend, I picked up a book relating to the development of new technologies, by Bijker, a leading light in the field of "science and technology studies."

One of the case studies was on biking, which is what called my attention to the topic.

For all my talk about systems and even the development of automobility as a system, I haven't read much about this more specifically.

Bijker writes about "the social consstruction of technology," of artifacts, social groups, how groups interpret positives and negatives, the "technological framework for the invention," power relations, etc.

Some of the seminal writings were by T.P. Hughes on electricity (_Networks of Power_). He writes about how different power relations and political frameworks shaped the electricity industry in different ways when comparing the US, UK and Germany.

Anyway, as the US becomes more bureaucratic generally, I think this accounts for the reduced ability of entrepreneurs to develop businesses etc. (the topic of a recent Robt. Samuelson column in the Post).

Anyway, these kinds of issues have some influence on space too, especially in a region where a lot of the space has to do with "coordination" rather than R&D or production, places like NIH notwithstanding.

At 11:01 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Well, I should explain my chain of thought a bit better.

"Next-over" is a great idea, not rocket science.

But you also need space for large scale development. That is where the financing is, people want large buildings. They can anchor new residents and bring in a level of creditability to finance smaller projects.

(In particular, I'm thinking of North Shaw)

At 11:56 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I'd forgotten about that element.

In H St., you have no idea how "electrifying" it was to the sense that things could change, once Abdo announced their acquisition of the Children's Museum site. That was 3-4 years before it opened of course. But it started the process.

And then, the day it opened, in 2008, it was amazing to see people walking up and down H St., the kinds of people who never would have before.

2. similarly, I remember being surprised at the first and only "City Expo" in 2003 -- where the city did a kind of "Live Baltimore" type thing, and all the main street programs and other interest groups exhibited, to promote inward migration, and how so many people expressed an interest in multiunit housing, because they didn't want the responsibility of maintaining an individual property.

(This btw is something that the legacy SFH owners who are "activists" refuse to acknowledge.)

So these are two different elements. One is providing a wider range of housing types, because everyone isn't looking to take on the responsibilities of SFH ownership.

The second is the external confirmation factor--that you're making the right choice to live in a place--because developers are investing there.

I guess the third is what it has to do with capitalism and acknowledging and celebrating the re/integration of the community in the real estate/market system.

and yes, "one over neighborhood" isn't rocket science, but an important concept nonetheless.


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