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URA's Avenues of Hope has $7 million to help undo a history of disinvestment in Black neighborhoods

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Black business owners like Lateresa Blackwell say the URA's Avenues of Hope can help bring resources to Main Streets that have seen historic disinvestment, including Perrysville Avenue.

Lateresa Blackwell was born and raised in the Perry Hilltop neighborhood, also known as Perry South, on the North Side. She remembers going to church services as a young girl inside the old American Legion building, located just off Perrysville Avenue.

From the front steps of the legion hall, now vacant, she points to a barren lot next door.

“That was a bar. It was called Pleasures Bar, and as a young woman, I used to frequent that, too. That was B.C.,” she laughed.

Blackwell, who also owns Cafe on the Corner in Marshall-Shadeland with her husband, used her life savings to purchase the American Legion building and surrounding lots in 2021 for $45,000.

Like a lot of the structures along the area’s main corridor near North Charles Street, all of them had been vacant for decades.

In the first part of the 20th century, the predominantly residential area around Perrysville and North Charles was home to one of the city’s first streetcar suburbs.

But in the 1960s, the area experienced white flight, and with it a decline in total population. While the area’s Black population increased, the number of residents dropped from 16,000 to 13,000 between 1960 and 1970.

The population continued to rapidly decrease into the 21st century, with just under 4,000 residents in Perry Hilltop in 2020. Of them, 75% are Black.

Blackwell said she saw the community of her childhood go from one where people wanted to raise their families to “a desolate desert because there was not enough resources or funding that was poured into our communities.”

Blackwell is now one of several North Side residents hoping to breathe new life into their community by redeveloping properties there. After toying with several business ideas, Blackwell decided she would develop the space into a child care center large enough to hold 100 children, from infants to elementary school students.

Blackwell said she aims to open the child care center this fall. Soon after, she plans to renovate additional space on the property for an event space that could host weddings and galas after-hours, as well as a convenience store on the undeveloped lot.

“We're looking at over 20 jobs being able to bring into this community,” Blackwell said. “So that's huge, but we need the resources in order to get there.”

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That's where Blackwell and other business leaders say a new grant program from Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority can step in.

Called Avenues of Hope, the URA initiative steers investments toward seven historically-Black corridors throughout the city: Perrysville, Centre Avenue, Chartiers Avenue, Homewood Avenue, Second Avenue, and Larimer Avenue, as well as the area around Warrington Avenue and Brownsville Road.

The program offers Black-owned businesses and community groups within the seven corridors several funding channels, including low-interest loans to get projects off the ground, and grants for facade improvements and property rehabilitations.

City officials first announced the initiative in October 2020, when then-Mayor Bill Peduto touted plans to build Black wealth without involving third parties or developers.

The following year, council members steered nearly $73 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds — allocated to the city in the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) — to the URA.

The program’s newest component leverages $7 million of those funds to award grants of up to $200,000 to businesses, nonprofits and property owners in these seven communities.

In line with federal funding requirements, the ARPA grant program targets areas disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, with $1 million allocated to each corridor in the city budget.

Applicants may receive up to $50,000 without any matching investment, while those requesting between $50,000 and $200,000 must be able to provide a cash equity investment of 10% of the project’s total cost, according to guidelines released this month.

Community advisory committees for each thoroughfare will meet quarterly to review applications and recommend projects that, among other things, rehabilitate vacant storefronts, clean up abandoned lots and provide health and safety improvements to public infrastructure.

The first round of applications is due by April 30th, with additional funding rounds each quarter this year.

In Perry Hilltop, leaders want to prioritize 'homegrown' developers

Like Blackwell, community leaders in Perry Hilltop say the multi-million-dollar initiative could serve as a chance to correct a history of disinvestment and neglect.

But growing the neighborhood sustainably takes careful planning, said Nancy Noszka, interim director Executive Director at the Perry Hilltop Citizens Council (PHCC).

From 1989 to 2000, Noszka led the Lawrenceville Development Corporation. She said gentrification there “just got out of control.”

In the decades since, developers have erected numerous luxury apartment buildings and home prices in the neighborhood have soared, displacing residents who could no longer afford to live there.

“It was a different time — we couldn't get a restaurant here. We couldn't get anybody,” Noszka said. “So...our effort was 'share the growth,’ but we didn't know we'd be displacing people. Now we know all this, we've learned.”

Noszka said much of the difference lies in who has site control. PHCC has begun purchasing vacant and condemned properties all along Perrysville Avenue. That includes the historic Atlas Theater.

Last operated in 1953, PHCC board members hope, once renovated, it can serve as an anchor in community revitalization efforts.

They plan to either convert the properties to subsidized, affordable housing or sell them to business owners within the community — not outside developers.

“And sometimes we're going to have to sit on them for a year to prevent that,” Noszka said. “We're not going to flip them and sell them.”

Once the property is in the hands of business owners, Noszka said funding from Avenues of Hope, as well as private-public partnerships, will be key in maintaining their success.

“It's just really taking your time, being strategic about what will really work there and then making sure that you're not overburdening the debt service on the building,” she said.

Blackwell said she hopes doing so in this way will put an end to a pattern of out-of-town developers beginning projects in neighborhoods like Perry Hilltop only to abandon them.

“And we don't finish it. So it's my hope that these resources that are coming into the community is going to help us," Blackwell said. "I'm talking about homegrown developers being able to accomplish our goals and bringing economic development through jobs."

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
While Wilson’s won’t open until mid-April, its presence is already causing a stir in the neighborhood. The restaurant received funding to put up new signage through Avenues of Hope’s fourth and final funding stream, a facade grant program.

A fresh face for the city's Main Streets

Ira Lewis, who grew up a few streets from Perrysville Avenue, agreed.

“Since I'm from the North Side, I want to see the North Side flourish,” he said.

Lewis will reopen Wilson’s Bar-B-Q just across the street from the old American Legion this spring. His great-uncle first opened the neighborhood mainstay in 1972.

Its Mexican War Streets storefront closed after a fire in 2019.

“We're actually so known, when I put it out there that I was looking for a new location, I had people wanting me to put one on the West End, the East End,” he said. “I'm like, ‘Hey, let's get it back on the North Side first and then we’ll talk about expanding.’”

Lewis received $170,000 from the Avenues of Hope Commercial Real Estate (ACRE) program to reestablish Wilson’s on Perrysville Avenue. The low-interest loan program is designed to help minority business owners cover site acquisition, building and construction costs, with no payments due for 20 years.

As of Feb. 21, four businesses have received a combined $750,000, with an additional $240,000 to be disbursed for the remainder of 2023. Additional financing is available to small contractors with projects in the Avenues of Hope through a loan program made possible by a $1 million investment from First National Bank.

Wilson’s won’t open until mid-April, but Lewis said, once it does, the shop will remain family-run, just as it has been for the last 50 years.

Its presence, too, is already causing a stir in the neighborhood. The restaurant received funding to put up new signage through Avenues of Hope’s fourth and final funding stream, a storefront facade grant program.

Lewis received a grant for the full $12,000 offered to business owners through Avenues of Hope. Overhead lamps frame the bold, red-and-black words, and provide a source of light for pedestrians in the neighborhood.

At the moment, there aren't many other businesses near Wilson's on Perrysville Avenue.

"I feel privileged to be able to kind of kickstart it, being from here," he added.

The URA will hold info sessions on the fund on March 14th and 16th. Applications for the first round of grants are due by the end of April.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.