Planner looks to clean house, 'get off first base' in Bloomfield
May 7, 2013 5:16 AM
While on a walk down Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield, David Feehan, right, stops to talk with businessman Orrie Mariani.
By Diana Nelson Jones Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On a recent stroll along Liberty Avenue, Dave Feehan met Orrie Mariani, who owns an appraisal company. Told Mr. Feehan was in Bloomfield to improve the business district, Mr. Mariani made a sign of the cross and bowed.
In January, Mr. Feehan was hired as interim director of the Bloomfield Development Corp., a nonprofit whose state Main Street funding was pulled by the Urban Redevelopment Authority last year. Bloomfield is beset by long-standing factions and a stagnant retail aesthetic.
At the same time, the corridor has drawn a number of new businesses in the past year.
The development corporation got a grant to hire Mr. Feehan, an international consultant on business development, to whip the nonprofit into shape, recruit businesses, build consensus among them and obtain funding for a small staff. He said he expects to leave the job by year's end to a permanent executive director.
On the walk, Mr. Feehan pointed out cracks and craters in the sidewalks, curbs that are falling as rubble into the street, outdated faux awnings, gaudy signs, suburban facades, and graffiti on bus shelters, mail boxes and buildings.
"Before we renovate the house," he said, "we have to clean the house. Bloomfield needs management."
Since the first of the year, he has been driving from Washington, D.C., every two weeks for a few days at a time to bring solutions to Bloomfield that he has applied to cities worldwide in a 45-year career.
He was in the thick of engineering Detroit's renaissance. He led the organization that helped rejuvenate downtown Des Moines, Iowa. He led the transformation of a rundown part of Kalamazoo, Mich., into a tourist attraction.
Asked why Bloomfield after working at such large scales, he said, "It's because it's Pittsburgh. I formed a bond here [with Volunteers in Service to America], and it felt more like home than anywhere I've ever been."
In 1968, Mr. Feehan was assigned by VISTA to McKeesport, where he served for several years. A ribbon of Pittsburgh has run through his life ever since.
In the late 1970s, he returned to do post-graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh after a decade in his hometown of Minneapolis as a community organizer and a leader in the Model Cities program.
During an internship with the Allegheny Conference, he founded and led the Community Technical Assistance Center, which continues to build neighborhood organizations. He was the first director of East Liberty Development Inc. and worked on a strategic plan for Neighborhood Housing Services in the North Side, where he met Rita Dillingham, the housing organization's deputy director. They married a year later.
After stints in a number of cities, Mr. Feehan was CEO of the International Downtown Association for nine years before starting Civitas Consultants in Silver Spring, Md., in 2009. Late last year, the Bloomfield Development Corp. came calling.
"I knew of his involvement in helping cities all over the country -- rather large ones, too," said Ben Forman, president of the nonprofit's board. "He had great contacts and knew how to lead [community development corporations] and to get funding for their needs."
Terry Ford Aiello, the nonprofit's former Main Street manager, is working as a consultant with Mr. Feehan.
Before Mr. Feehan came on board, state Sen. Jim Ferlo, a URA board member, said he had given up on the Bloomfield Development Corp. and instead rallied business owners to work directly with the URA on upgrades and repairs on Liberty. He said he asked that group, which is seeking nonprofit status as the Bloomfield Business Organization, to meet with Mr. Feehan and the Bloomfield Development board this year.
"Our hope was that we could merge efforts because to fund two groups competing for resources is ridiculous," Mr. Ferlo said. When the business group declined, he informed them he would no longer meet with them unless "folks come together constructively."
Representatives of the Bloomfield Business Organization could not be reached for comment, but Mr. Ferlo said some had trouble working with the development corporation in the past.
"He has great depth of knowledge," Mr. Ferlo said of Mr. Feehan. "I'm very optimistic, despite setbacks. It's too important an area. We have to start working together and agree to a higher aesthetic."
Several years ago, the URA paid Mr. Feehan to assess several neighborhood business corridors and create a strategy for their improvement. He proposed business improvement districts, areas that are assessed an extra tax for private services. Mount Washington and the South Side chose neighborhood improvement districts to include residents and failed in their attempt.
Businesses in Lawrenceville recently voted down a business improvement district, which would not have included residents.
Talking with Mr. Feehan on the street, Mr. Mariani said a young developer called Bloomfield "the best place to be developed, and I said, 'Yes, but we can't get off first base.' "
Mr. Feehan has a history of advancing runners.
In Detroit, he directed a downtown organization during the city's renaissance in the mid-1990s in redeveloping 16 acres.
Elizabeth Baergen, a Detroit attorney who worked with him, recalled "numerous parcels and landowners and one property with multiple owners. Ultimately we got title and ended up doing a great development" -- Campus Martius Park, now home to Compuware and Quicken Loans.
While studying at Pitt, Mr. Feehan interned at the Allegheny Conference, where the assistant executive director was David Bergholz. Mr. Bergholz went on to lead the George Gund Foundation in Cleveland.
Mr. Feehan said Mr. Bergholz asked him "to do something here like we did in Minneapolis," a technical assistance center for neighborhood advocates. "I set up the Community Technical Assistance Center. At some point, [Mr. Bergholz] said, 'I think you should run the thing.' "
While at CTAC, he had lunch one day with a board member from the newly formed East Liberty Development Inc.
"He asked me to be the new director. I said, 'I don't know much about real estate,' and he said, 'You'll learn.' "
Over the next seven years, the nonprofit recruited businesses, bought the old Highland Hotel and turned it into offices and retail. It bought an entire block of Penn Avenue at the behest of East Liberty Presbyterian, with a church loan, to renovate the buildings.
"Dave's fingerprints were all over some of the early stage developments in the files [at ELDI] when I got there," said Rob Stephany, director of economic and community development for the Heinz Endowments who worked in real estate development for ELDI from 1999 to 2008.
"Having those assets in place is one of the reasons investors are now investing. Bloomfield is lucky. Dave's a little engine who's going to find the yes."
Mr. Bergholz remembered Mr. Feehan more recently from his leadership of the International Downtown Association. "He is smart and tactical, and he also has a good bedside manner. He could work with a lot of different folks and build consensus.
"If he's willing to take on [Bloomfield], he's liable to get something done of some significance. Dave and I share at least one thing: We think the tussle is fun."