Vive la Downtown! Business grants available to instill a touch of Paris

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Whether it's flowers spilling into the street from a florist shop or sipping coffee at an outdoor cafe, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership wants to bring a bit of Paris to the city of steel.

Through a $1 million grant from the Colcom Foundation, the partnership is offering matching funds to Downtown restaurants, retailers and businesses as incentive to perk up their facades and sidewalks.

The Paris to Pittsburgh program is one of two initiatives being launched by the partnership this year in a bid to add vibrancy to the heart of the Golden Triangle.

It also is offering property owners loans to convert vacant or under-used upper floors into apartments in the hope of providing more affordable options for people who want to live Downtown.

One of the goals of the Paris to Pittsburgh program is to make store and restaurant fronts more transparent, with large window or garage door-like openings that will allow patrons to move freely between the indoor and outdoor spaces.

"This is a way to activate [the sidewalks] and to create more dynamic space for people to use," said Mike Edwards, the partnership's president and chief executive officer.

The partnership already is working with MixStirs Cafe, a Market Square restaurant that opened last fall, on improvements. The restaurant has added retractable awnings that will allow for outdoor dining in the warmer weather, and new lights and signs.

As spring approaches, it plans to take out part of a wall facing the square and add a 20-foot window or door. The restaurant also will add about 25 seats outside.

The work will cost about $60,000, with the cost split between the partnership and the restaurant owner.

MixStirs owner Mike Pfeuffer said the improvements will give the restaurant "more of a European feel" and enhance Market Square.

"We're trying to make Market Square a more pedestrian friendly place, a destination spot for families and businessmen. These enhancements are only going to add to that," he said.

Under the program, matching grants can be used for a multitude of improvements, including awnings and umbrellas, flower boxes, outdoor tables and chairs, heating lanterns for dining in cooler weather, lighting, signs, landscaping, outdoor music and better access..

For example, florists could use the money to display flowers outdoors, Mr. Edwards said. Markets could do the same with fruits and vegetables. Bookstores could put racks of books on the sidewalks. Jenny Lee Bakery could serve coffee and doughnuts outdoors.

"Those are the kinds of things that we think will make Downtown a much deeper experience," Mr. Edwards said.

Robin Fernandez, owner of the Bossa Nova restaurant, who is opening a market in the Encore on 7th apartment building in March, said he would like to display fresh vegetables and flowers on the sidewalk. He said he may take advantage of the program for the store and his Downtown restaurants.

He said such initiatives are important for improving Downtown.

"It just adds to the vibrancy. Street activity is always great for business. The busier the sidewalks are the busier the businesses are," he said.

The partnership hopes to award matching grants for 68 projects Downtown. It hopes to do 32 to 35 this year alone. An advisory committee that will include urban design professionals will review applications from businesses.

It also wants to develop sidewalk parties and other street level programs to complement and play off improvements.

The partnership's other major initiative this year is a loan program to help property owners convert upper floor space into apartments. The program is being funded with the help of a $1.75 million grant from the Heinz Endowments and $1.75 million from the city Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Mr. Edwards said the partnership hopes to award five to eight loans this year and create 50 rental units Downtown. He said the goal is to create more affordable housing than some of the upper-end residential projects that have been completed or are being developed in the city.

Projects can have up to eight floors of residential development.

Coupled with the facade and street improvements, "we think it's going to create a much more vibrant Downtown," Mr. Edwards said.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said the program fits in with his plans for Downtown, noting that "growing our residential base is one of my primary goals and I am pleased that the city can join the foundation community in turning great ideas into reality."

The partnership plans to discuss both initiatives at its annual meeting next week.


Mark Belko can be reached at mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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