At Doughboy Square in lower Lawrenceville, development activity is on the rise.
Over the past several years, the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority has been acquiring properties that are clustered around Lawrenceville's border with the Strip District. This spring, construction on the Shops at Doughboy, a $7 million, 48,000-square-foot project, is to begin, bringing both retail space and apartments to a site at 3345 Penn Ave.
Now, the neighborhood is being called an up-and-coming area, but a group of people started to see the potential in Doughboy Square -- and act on it -- long ago:
Desmone & Associates Architects were the first. Chip Desmone, president of the family firm established in 1958, looked past the boarded up storefronts that made up lower Lawrenceville in the early 1990s. He focused instead on the grandeur of the defunct Pennsylvania National Bank building, sitting empty in the shadow of the WWI doughboy statue.
"What we saw was a great building, a great, iconic building, which would provide us a great space to work in," he said.
In 1992, his firm moved from Point Breeze to the bank building it had turned into expansive office space. At first, its only business neighbors were a radiator store and a bar, Mr. Desmone said. But gradually other architecture firms, as well as art and design companies, moved to the area around the statue, bringing new life to the community.
"It's a great neighborhood, with a lot of great architecture, and good stock of historic buildings, that's a pleasure and a joy to walk down the street now," Mr. Desmone said.
Today, there are more than 50 businesses between 34th and 62nd streets in Lawrenceville's main business district that fall into an architecture and design category, said Maya Henry, business district manager for Lawrenceville Corp., the community development group for the neighborhood.
That's no accident.
Joe Kelly, owner of Kelly Custom Furniture & Cabinetry, opened his company at 5239 Butler St. nearly 23 years ago, when there was "not much" in Lawrenceville. He had moved there because the area was affordable and he liked the character of his building. He noticed other businesses in the art and design industry gravitating toward Lawrenceville, and he suggested a campaign focused on continuing the trend.
The Lawrenceville Corp.'s 16:62 Design Zone campaign began in 2000, with pamphlets highlighting the design companies located between 16th Street in the Strip District and 62nd Street in Upper Lawrenceville.
"We changed the perception of Lawrenceville from being a roughneck area to an area where you could come and get good design and good product," said Mr. Kelly, who is a board member and past board president of the Lawrenceville Corp., which he helped found. "And it's gotten stronger ever since."
One of the companies the 16:62 campaign attracted was Quad3 Group Inc., a full-service architectural, engineering and environmental firm.
About 10 years ago, the firm's Monroeville office decided to relocate to Lawrenceville, said Jennifer McDowell, senior interior designer and program manager at the firm.
It renovated a four-story former bathhouse at 3445 Butler, and one floor became its offices. Recently, interior designers from different firms in Lawrenceville gathered at Quad3's offices for a study session for a professional licensing exam for interior designers, Ms. McDowell said.
"Although we kind of compete, we kind of support each other as well, so it's a nice tool," she said.
The camaraderie factor has been a draw in recent years, but 10 to 20 years ago, firms were attracted to Lawrenceville due to the building stock and its price tag, Mr. Desmone said.
"We could get a great building, with great space, at a pretty inexpensive price," Mr. Desmone said he thought when Desmone & Associates started looking at Lawrenceville.
The leadership of KSBA architectural firm had a similar thought process in the late 1990s, said Grant E. Scott, a partner at the firm. In 1998, his company moved its headquarters to 3441 Butler St., into a livery stable dating to 1888.
They preserved the historic form of the building's exterior, then modernized the interior using some of the same design elements they offer their clients, mostly call centers. The building was selected to be part of the LEED pilot program for green buildings.
From the start, the company could envision Lawrenceville growing, Mr. Scott said.
The lower Lawrenceville community has grown, and as development projects get underway soon more retail and residential properties will dot the once-deserted landscape. Architecture and design firms, however, were among the first to start the transformation.
"It really takes a creative mind to be willing to look at the building that is boarded up and run down and say this would be a good place to be and see the potential for what can happen here," Mr. Desmone said.