Years of planning have paid off with housing, business investment
August 1, 2011 8:00 AM
Community and business leaders from Larimer: Scott Smith (left) of East End Brewing, Chris Koch of GTECH, Craig Marcus from Marcus Studio and Neil Stauffer of Penn's Corner Farm Alliance. They're on the roof of GTECH with Hamilton Avenue behind, going toward East Liberty.
By Diana Nelson Jones Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A pink truck is parked outside a former automotive warehouse in the 6500 block of Hamilton Avenue in Larimer, and equipment and supplies litter the floor: Sweet Tammy's Baking Co. is moving in.
Scott Smith had no idea when he finally found the right place to expand the East End Brewing Co. that he was getting in on a Larimer wave. "I just found a building I liked," he said.
What seems like sudden synergy in Larimer is the payoff from years of tending one vacant lot after another. Nested against East Liberty and Shadyside, Larimer was ripe for a strategy in 2008 after residents, business owners and other advocates finished their neighborhood master plan.
The city was ready to help, too, on the strength of commercial and housing developments in East Liberty.
"The mayor [Luke Ravenstahl] is focused on figuring out how this new economy that seems to be unfolding can spread into neighborhoods that have never had a shot at a renaissance," said Rob Stephany, executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. "We've been working in Larimer four to five years both on planning and site control" for a housing plan.
As proposed, it will bring 70-100 units of mixed-income rental to "a chunk of land along East Liberty Boulevard to Larimer Avenue and then into the heart of Larimer Avenue to Meadow," he said. "We have a market for young new people who aren't afraid of places like Larimer. For the first time in my professional career, we have new people to plug into a revitalization effort."
For existing residents, he said, the URA helped fund repairs on homes that were identified for attention by staff from the Kingsley Association.
Malik Bankston, executive director of the Kingsley Association, said the neighborhood's challenge is to re-imagine itself. The neighborhood of 1,750 at its biggest had 14,000 people.
He said that if developers, the public sector and banks could team up to build a viable community on a man-made slag heap -- Summerset at Frick Park development -- "then it's possible to remake a neighborhood like Larimer that already has infrastructure, a street grid and water and sewer and power."
Joanna Doven, spokesman for the mayor, said nearby developments in East Liberty and infrastructure improvements, including the $7 million Penn Circle conversion, should have a domino effect.
"Larimer will see its day come," she said, adding that the city created the infrastructure as a commitment to the development of Bakery Square -- home to an office of Google -- which is in Larimer.
Furniture maker Craig Marcus moved his studio into a Hamilton Avenue warehouse seven years ago and purchased a second warehouse down the street in October. GTECH moved in as the first tenant in April.
GTECH, or Growth Through Energy and Community Health, had filled a large lot on Larimer Avenue with sunflowers to decontaminate the land several years ago. That land is now a community garden a block long. Across Larimer Avenue, another large vacant lot will become an expansion of the "Village Green" that the Larimer Consensus Group conceived during the planning process.
Six green nonprofits have teamed up to leverage investments already made by the URA, the city and state Sen. Jim Ferlo's office, said Andrew Butcher, CEO of GTECH.
As Seeding Prosperity and Revitalizing Corridors, or SPARC, the group has been granted $475,000 by several foundations to develop 14 lots with native plants and trees, an expanded community garden and produce market, a stage for movies and concerts, a community oven and a stormwater collection.
SPARC comprises GTECH, the Kingsley Association, the Student Conservation Association, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Penn State Extension and Grow Pittsburgh in collaboration with East Liberty Development Inc, and the Larimer Consensus Group.
The strategy is to "layer a green education and training program as a means of building community capacity," said Mr. Butcher.
Joe McCarthy, urban greening coordinator for Penn State Extension, called SPARC "a perfect way to blend our skill sets in one project."
The Green Team grew out of neighborhood planning, created the community garden and has had 30 trees planted on Hamilton Avenue. Tree Pittsburgh has proposed an arboretum across from the Kingsley Association.
"I never imagined 18 months ago that there would be this level of activity" in Larimer, said Chris Koch, chief operating officer of GTECH. "It's amazing to me how many people are involved in making things happen here."
Neil Stauffer, general manager of Penn's Corner, said sharing quarters with GTECH is "a great stepping stone for us. We would like to find a bigger space on the same corridor." More than 30 restaurants, many of them within 3 miles, get their food from the farmers who belong to Penn's Corner.
In a year, Mr. Smith said, he will move his craft brewery from its cramped quarters on Susquehanna Street in Homewood to a former telecom building in the 6500 block of Frankstown.
Sweet Tammy's sells kosher baked goods to 21 stores in the area and has moved from Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill, from 600 square feet of production space to 11,000.
"We are now situated for growth as far as we can run," Tammy Berkowitz's husband, Daniel Berkowitz, said.
The couple moved to Pittsburgh "sight unseen," sold on the city by a man they met overseas, he said. "We identified Larimer as a hot spot," an undeveloped neighborhood surrounded by development. "Our thinking has been validated. We're exciting about what's happening over here."