Uptown: Pittsburgh's next hot neighborhood?

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When Chris Spina went to Duquesne University in the 1970s, he didn't think the area was a neighborhood. Most students commuted and few ventured to Fifth Avenue.

The northern boundary of Uptown, Fifth Avenue now bustles with students, restaurant patrons, hockey fans, concert-goers, workers and potential investors.

It's a pivotal time for the roughly 905 households that nestle nearly invisibly into the industrial and institutional streetscape. Tens of thousands of drivers pass through every day without seeing the neighborhood. But it is starting to assert itself.

On a recent balmy day, do-it-yourselfers on ladders pounded and painted along Locust and Tustin streets. Ed D'Angelo popped out of his Forbes Auto Repair shop on Gist Street to hail sculptor James Simon. Children were walking home from school. A dog barked.

It was a village moment in a place that John Fleenor, a Gist Street resident and artist, calls "a work in progress."

The negative perception that dogs so many neighborhoods dogs Uptown. But Mr. Fleenor said that in the fixing up of first one then another house on his street, "we have seen a big difference."

"I think people think our crime is higher than it is," said Jeanne McNutt, executive director of Uptown Partners. Uptown, which the city officially calls the Bluff, had 147 serious crimes in 2009, similar to Upper Lawrenceville and Squirrel Hill North, albeit with a much smaller population.

Ten years ago, when Mr. Simon moved into a warehouse on Gist, the street was a hangout for prostitutes. Neighbors relentlessly called 911, he said, and the nuisance has almost completely abated.

"It's now probably the way it was 30 years ago," said Mr. D'Angelo. "It was good, then it flopped. Now it's coming around again."

Jon Kasunic, a partner at Agency 1903, a TV-commercial production company, renovated a typesetting warehouse on Gist and moved the business there six years ago.

"My wife said, 'Are you crazy?' but we were so happy to land here," he said. "South Side was a little too hip, and we got graffiti. Here we have a lot of characters and local color" but so far no vandals.

Longtime residents are proud to note the number of newcomers.

Lynn Hyde grew up in Ben Avon and moved back to Pittsburgh from Brooklyn this year.

"My dad's a real estate agent," she said, "and he said, 'Why not Uptown?' "

Two weeks ago, she closed on a two-bedroom house on Miltenberger Street. It has a patio and a view of Downtown.

"It is such a fantastic location," she said. "I can walk or bike to work. The neighbors are very friendly. They want to tell you where everything is. I feel very enthused."

Emily Ballinger scaled down several months ago from a large home in Lawrenceville.

For its proximity to her job in Oakland, she chose Uptown, her third neighborhood since arriving in 1997 from Austin, Texas.

In Squirrel Hill, the neighbors frowned about her family's move to Lawrenceville, and when she moved to Tustin Street in a separation from her husband, her Lawrenceville neighbors showed the same concern. "They said, 'You're living there?'

"Within a month here, I knew all my neighbors, from transplanted New Yorkers to people in Section 8 housing. The sense of neighborhood is amazing."

A three-minute walk from her door, Nate Hurt's home faces the Boulevard of the Allies. He is so used to the sounds of cars, trucks, trains and barges that "it puts me right to sleep," he said.

He is raising two teenage daughters alone and is still alert to the occasional run-ins with solicitations for drugs and sex, but he said crime "is not as bad as it was."

Mr. Hurt grew up on Fifth Avenue and still considers Uptown intertwined with the Hill: "If Uptown looks good, the Hill looks good."

Uptown's emergence as a neighborhood owes in part to the Gist Street Reading Series, which ends next month after a 10-year run. It has attracted thousands of people who Mr. Simon said might otherwise never have heard of Uptown or thought it was dangerous. Also, the multistreet summer festival that started as Uptown's annual block party has become a draw beyond the neighborhood.

An urban garden is being established on Tustin Street with Grow Pittsburgh's support.

Last year, Uptown Partners teamed up with the Oakland Planning and Development Corp. and the Hill House Economic Development Corp. in building a plan to address development, parking, housing, retail, transportation, green amenities and crime. The effort was funded by the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development and the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

"Uptown is so much more than a transportation corridor," said David Light, the partnership's grant officer. "It represents growing and emerging artistic and technology communities."

A state tax-incentive for technology start-ups looped Uptown into an innovation zone that includes part of Downtown and the North Side. Most of 28 start-ups incubated in that program have stayed Uptown, said Steve Schillo, a vice president at Duquesne University.

The university has been instrumental in building a sense of place in the neighborhood, said Ms. McNutt. Mr. Schillo said the amenities on the street level of the Power Center on Forbes Avenue -- a Barnes & Noble, the Red Ring restaurant, Jamba Juice and a Starbucks -- "are good for our students and a shot in the arm for the neighborhood."

Public art is Mr. Simon's form of community development. He and Mr. Fleenor have systematically created and installed street art on Gist, including two large paintings on houses and sculpture dogs on the sidewalk in front of the auto repair shop.

The first piece, 10 years ago, was Mr. Simon's gorilla sculpture peering out from his property.

"King Kong got so much positive attention that I realized art can help neighborhoods like this, neighborhoods that nobody ever does anything for," said Mr. Simon, who lives in a converted warehouse.

It is one of numerous nontraditional living spaces Uptown.

Mr. Spina recently transformed law offices that had been vacant for 10 years into apartments.

He said his firm had listed the law offices "with three agents and got no interest." Spina Law Associates occupies the second floor of the Fifth Avenue building. "I thought maybe residential would work here.

"There's so much energy," he said, "and having students on the avenue is huge."

Development proposals are piling up -- new restaurants in the Consol Energy Center, a residential "portal" project near the Birmingham Bridge, condos in the Fifth Avenue High School, renovation of a Fifth Avenue warehouse into apartments. Projects in the works include the URA's housing development on Dinwiddie Street between Centre and Fifth avenues.

"The Fifth Avenue corridor is a no-brainer," said Kyra Straussman, director of real estate for the URA. "It has to be strong. It connects the two largest commercial areas in the city. That corridor is going to be a big focus for the next 10 years."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at http://blogs.sites.post-gazette.com . See the June 2009 article about Uptown on The Next Page: " Catching Up with Uptown ," about a Leadership Pittsburgh project there. First Published November 21, 2010 5:00 AM


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