East Liberty becomes a vibrant community

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Ten years ago, East Liberty had a ray of hope: A Home Depot was under construction. Then-Mayor Tom Murphy called the new store "a launching pad" for the East End's neighborhoods.

He picked the right metaphor; East Liberty is on a rocket's trajectory. But it's a long flight. "We're at year 10 of the story," said Mark Minnerly, director of real estate for the Mosites Co., the developer of Eastside. "We're halfway done."

East Liberty has gone from being a neighborhood in need of someone to invest private money to being a beehive. Sixteen developers are at work there currently. Two new hotels are coming, the first hotels in decades. The Eastside complex that includes Whole Foods is expanding. Hundreds of new homes are being built, and a green-infrastructure plan will bring geothermal heating and cooling to about 800 of them. Storm water sequestration plans are in the works, as is a European-style town square.

On Thursday, over fruit and pastries at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater -- itself 10 years old -- a clutch of community development pros celebrated the neighborhood's journey and marveled at what it took.

It took, first, a community plan built by broad consensus.

Rob Stephany, executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, who then worked for East Liberty Development Inc., recalls ELDI inviting as many neighborhood representatives as possible to help plan, including residents of public housing.

"I remember," said Maelene Myers, executive director of ELDI, "that the community planning just seemed so overwhelming when it started. I thought, 'How were we going to get funding?'"

By the mid-1990s, East Liberty's future and demeanor was grim. Its street life was vice-ridden and forbidding, its core blighted.

"Everyone agreed the high-rises were poorly managed and that dysfunction was an imposing influence on the neighborhood," said Mr. Stephany.

ELDI committed to building affordable replacement housing when it proposed to destroy the high-rises. It has replaced roughly 400 of the 600 units with scattered townhouses and apartments, said Skip Schwab, ELDI's director of grants and development. It has also built and restored hundreds of market-rate homes.

The planning process was spirited and noisy, but "we had an inspired shared vision," said Mr. Stephany. "When Whole Foods approached us, we handed them our plan. They came to the next meeting and we began connecting people to their jobs."

By the time Whole Foods opened in 2002, ELDI, with representatives from a dozen public and private organizations, established the East End Growth Fund.

Ellen Kight, then with the state Department of Community and Economic Development, was on the fund committee, as was Mr. Stephany. Other members came from the McCune Foundation, the Local Initiatives Support Corp., the Green Building Alliance, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and East Liberty Presbyterian Church, among others.

"The initial $4 million the fund raised leveraged $66 million in private investment between 2001 and 2006," said Ms. Kight, now president of the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development. Her organization works with North Side, Uptown and Hilltop neighborhood groups to build the same model.

The growth fund's work in East Liberty will extend east toward Larimer, strengthened by green infrastructure.

Four years ago, ELDI hired a coordinator of sustainable policy and has dubbed him its green guru. Nathan Wildfire said East Liberty is "trying to be the model in Pittsburgh for dealing with storm water. And we want to challenge the basic principles of how we build a road, a house, a parking lot and a park" by using water catchment systems, permeable paving and energy-saving design and technology.

ELDI is asking the city to narrow some streets for driver and pedestrian safety, to add bike lanes and widen sidewalks to make room for tree rows and rain-collection gardens.

Mr. Wildfire said representatives from Target, the Hotel Indigo and East Liberty Presbyterian Church are talking to him about ways to divert run-off storm water.

East Liberty Presbyterian, he said, "has agreed to be a storm water mitigation project by taking all the water that runs off it under the plaza. We don't know how it will work yet, whether a cistern or bioswales," or a water feature to enhance the block the church occupies. The plan is to turn that block into a commons, to be named East Liberty Town Square.

The Rev. Randy Bush, senior pastor at East Liberty Presbyterian, said the church is excited about its partnership with ELDI in an effort to "make our building as green as possible."

"Nate suggested our church as a pilot project using rain gardens and specialized planting and specialized piping underground that would divert rain to gravel beds around the church. The preliminary engineering work has been done."

State grants and federal stimulus money is available to encourage projects such as these, he said.

"There's the green of trees and frogs" said Mr. Wildfire, "and there's the green in people's wallets. These plans need to save or make money for every partner at the table. So we need to do our homework to convince them that they do. Our nonprofit can support itself and save money by implementing these measures in our own developments."

Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Visit her blog, "City Walkabout," at www.post-gazette.com/localnews /.


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