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URA Approves First Cohort Of Businesses For Centre Avenue Redevelopment

The plan for the Centre Avenue corridor includes three major "centres": culture, opportunity, and cultivation.

Small businesses owned by women and minorities are driving the redevelopment of Centre Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The board of the Urban Redevelopment Authority greenlighted six proposals for the corridor on Thursday.

The URA and the city of Pittsburgh together own 170 parcels along Centre Avenue. Hill District residents and business owners said they wanted to help rebuild, but told the URA its normal processes were daunting.

“Sometimes the process is so big that ... it doesn’t even matter because we can’t compete with larger-scale companies and corporations who have so much resources at their fingertips,” said Monica Smith, who owns and operates Salon XO. Smith is one of the entrepreneurs whose work will continue to move forward with the URA thanks, in part, to the amended proposal process.

The agency dropped application components that required an up-front investment, such as architectural drawings, and instead sought ideas that could advance the community-developed plan for the avenue. Neighborhood Allies provided technical support to applicants.

Board member and city councilor Daniel Lavelle said the URA has never seen this level of participation from minority- and women-owned businesses.

“If you want to begin redeveloping these neighborhoods, if you want to create a strong, black middle class, you do this sort of development,” he said.

The new process and the selected projects are evidence that individual neighborhood developers can help rebuild their own communities, said Diamonte Walker, deputy director of the URA.

“My guess has been that if we get the full support of government behind these folks, we can make a difference and we can make it possible,” she said.

The selected proposals include a pocket park behind an art gallery, the rehabilitation of a former barbershop, gallery and commercial space. Many of the projects include plans for ground floor activity paired with affordable apartments. The developers are: Amani Christian Community Development Corporation, MOKA Art Gallery, Salon XO and Bridging the Gap Development, Studio Volcy, the Sankofa Group, and Thomas Boyd.

The URA approved exclusive negotiations with the developers for 55 parcels where their work will take place. They will now work to put together a full proposal to bring back before the board.

In mid-March the URA expects to issue an invitation for a second round of proposals for the remaining parcels on Centre Avenue.

In addition, by the end of February the URA expects to request interested tenants for the Centre Heldman Plaza. The agency acquired the site of the former Shop n’ Save grocery store to ensure its future is decided by the public. Between the grocery and four retail storefronts the plaza contains 37,000 square feet of space.

On Thursday the board also approved support for three affordable housing developments, one in Homewood, one in Garfield, and one in the Hill District, which is a project directed by the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh.

The Givner Building in Homewood will become two first-floor storefronts and six apartments. Two of the units will be rented to people whose income is 80 percent or less of area median income, and the remaining units will be rented to people whose income is 50 percent or less of area median income. In 2019, the area median income for a family of four was $79,900.

Operation Better Block will be the developer. It’s taken six years of work to bring the project to the finish line, said Jerome Jackson, executive director of OBB.

“It is a really big deal for our business corridor,” he said. “This is only the first of many for us.”

In Garfield, the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation and the Garfield Community Land Trust will renovate the 16-unit Montana Building, which has rented at affordable rates since 1992. Money from the Housing Opportunity Fund will help update the building as well as ensure the apartments remain affordable in perpetuity. Four units will be rented at or below 30 percent of area median income, with the remainder rented at or below 50 percent.

The Housing Authority work in the Hill District will create both affordable rental and for-sale homes. Amani Christian Community Development Corporation is part of the project’s development team. Executive director Lee Walls said it’s important to expand homeownership as community development continues in the Hill District, Homewood and Larimer.

“Our community is crying out for it. We’ve got to continue to work and make a way for that to happen in the City of Pittsburgh,” he said. “We all benefit from that.”

Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s senior reporter. She covers development and transportation, and has produced award-winning podcasts on housing, work, and Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history. Before joining the newsroom full time, she covered the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities as a statewide reporter, and spent another life as an assistant editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at mkrauss@wesa.fm.