Towns planning for future growth by investing in the feel of the past

Some old communities reinvent themselves, while some newones use the small-town, main-street approach.

When Gregg Murray was making plans to relocate to the Pittsburgh area, he was looking for a community with a small-town feel.

"I wanted the convenience of not having to drive to go to the gym, eat lunch or pick up dry cleaning," he said. "My sister told me, 'I have the place for you.' "

Mr. Murray, a self-employed website consultant, moved in mid-March to the Village at Pine. "I was here for four days before I had to get into my car," he recalled recently as he took a morning stroll through his new neighborhood.

The Village at Pine is a 174-acre mixed-use community that includes several types of housing, office space and a variety of stores and service businesses, both large and small. Built on the bluff above Route 19 at Wallace Road in Pine, the Village at Pine may be best known for its man-made waterfall.

"This is like a little town," developer Dominic Gigliotti Sr. said of the project. "We tried to provide services to residents. You can get your hair cut, laundry and dry cleaning done and go to the food store or to restaurants."

The formal name for a community like this under Pine's building code is a "town center planned development overlay." The result is a neighborhood that resembles a small-town Main Street and surrounding residential streets. Except, perhaps, for the large parking lot in front of the Giant Eagle's Market District store and two dozen other businesses.

"The bulk of the customers coming here are driving, but if you live down the street, you can walk," Mr. Gigliotti said. He is the managing partner of Gigliotti Holdings, the family-owned business that developed the Village at Pine.

Walkability is an advantage that many other traditional downtowns across southwestern Pennsylvania are emphasizing as they seek to reinvent themselves and attract new residents interested in a lifestyle less dependent on automobiles.

Town-campus trail

Latrobe is hoping that walking and bicycle paths, including one that would link its downtown to Saint Vincent College in neighboring Unity, could help bring new life to its business district.

"These things don't happen quickly, but we are moving forward," Councilwoman Rosie Wolford said of the trail project. She also serves as chairwoman of the Latrobe Community Revitalization Program.

Pittsburgh-based Pashek Associates has been hired to scope out possible routes for the proposed 2-mile link between the city and the college. The project was announced in July 2010.

That is not the only trail project under way, Latrobe city manager Alexander Graziani said. Old steel rails have been removed from the right of way abandoned by Ligonier Valley Railroad along Lincoln Avenue. That land is being redeveloped as a walking and biking trail. That route eventually may be extended into Derry and Ligonier townships as far as the scenic Loyalhanna Gorge, he said.

City officials also are hoping that new "eds" may help take the place of "meds." Latrobe faces the prospect of losing many physicians' offices after Excela Health, which runs Latrobe Hospital, builds an outpatient care center outside the city in Unity.

Westmoreland County Community College, which has a branch campus in Latrobe known as Laurel Center, has outgrown that space. With the help of the city and the Latrobe Community Revitalization Program, the community college located a new site in the city for a campus expansion. Old structures have been torn down, and the college plans to break ground this summer for a new $10 million building. The 26,000-square-foot project will be renamed the Latrobe Center when it opens with increased enrollment in fall 2014.

"We need new ways to reinvent ourselves, and one key is drawing people into downtown," Ms. Wolford said "We have a walkable town. The community college and the Saint Vincent trail will mean more young people visiting our restaurants, coffee shop and art center."

Places such as Latrobe also can draw on reservoirs of resident goodwill toward their municipalities. After the city lost its wooden playground to an arson fire, municipal officers, business leaders and residents made plans to build a bigger replacement. Working in triple shifts last week, volunteers finished the city's new "Playland."

Destination business

Like Latrobe, Carnegie is a community that lends itself to walking. It has an actual Main Street lined with businesses where residents can meet many of their shopping needs. The borough also is home to a number of "destination" businesses that offer unusual products or services.

Development grants from the Carnegie Community Development Corp. and matching funds and loans from Allegheny County's Allegheny Together program have helped the borough attract and retain businesses, Joanne Letcher said. She is executive director of the borough's community development organization.

Those new businesses have included Off The Wall Productions, a theater company, and stores set to open soon in the borough's old post office. "There is a lot of positive energy here," Ms. Letcher said.

Cultural events, like the community arts "crawls" that will begin May 10, help to keep people downtown in the evening, she said.

Philip Salvato is a Carnegie native who returned in 1990 to open an art gallery and studio on Third Street, one block south of Main Street.

Over the past 23 years, he has scrambled in the face of two floods and changing neighborhood demographics to keep the 3rd Street Gallery thriving.

"We do everything we can to stimulate the arts," he said. Events have included art exhibit openings and small-scale concerts.

Mr. Salvato is both a painter and a jazz musician. He also rents gallery space to other artists.

Mr. Salvato and his wife, Jean, were living in Rosslyn Farms when they made the decision to invest in an old building in Carnegie.

"I was looking for studio space," he said. He was initially interested only in the third floor, but over time he and his wife renovated the rest of the building.

"It took a lot of work, but the result was beauty on a shoestring budget," he said.

His wife ran the first-floor gallery until her death in 2005.

Eventually, Mr. Salvato sold his house in Rosslyn Farms, and he now lives on the third floor of the gallery building.

What Mr. Salvato has done with a single building, municipal officials in Monessen hope to do with many empty storefronts in their community.

Old towns, new ideas

Monessen, a city of about 7,700 along the Monongahela River, was named for the river and the steel-making city of Essen, Germany. Since the closing of most of its industrial plants in the 1970s and '80s, the community has sought to reinvent itself. The latest idea involves having the city buy properties already seized for unpaid taxes, then sell them to artists seeking inexpensive housing and studio space.

The city had hired R. Randy Lee as a part-time consultant to help with the effort, but that has proved to be a controversial move.

Mr. Lee recently confirmed that he and his wife had filed for bankruptcy protection, but Monessen city administrator John Harhai said Mr. Lee's financial problems should have no effect on the city's proposals, which already have drawn support from both Westmoreland County and state officials.

Requests for funds to acquire the foreclosed properties are being reviewed by the state Department of Community and Economic Development, Mr. Harhai said. City officials hope that funds for Monessen's renewal will be included in the 2014 state budget.

The idea of an "artists colony" in Monessen has itself attracted opposition. "Some people don't want to change, and they won't acknowledge that the city is down and out," Mr. Harhai said. "There is money out there for projects like this, and we want our share."

Bringing new life to old neighborhoods is important because opportunities to create new downtowns like the Village at Pine are rare.

"That parcel was unique -- large enough and located in the right [zoning] district," Larry Kurpakus said of the site along Perry Highway. Mr. Kurpakus is Pine's director of code administration and land development.

Resident Fran Ryce said living in the Village at Pine reminds her of what life was like growing up in her home town of Monessen.

"You could walk everywhere," she said of her childhood. Now she can recapture some of that experience.

"I can head out the back door and get to restaurants, run errands or do grocery shopping. It's a bustling place."

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Len Barcousky: or 724-772-0184. First Published May 2, 2013 4:00 AM


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