In June, the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Larimer was awarded a highly competitive $30 million Housing and Urban Development Choice Neighborhoods grant.
The money will go toward building 350 mixed income housing units. But the grant is just one step in a long and ongoing process of turning the neighborhood around.
Larimer is a small neighborhood, and much of it is made up of open space. Blocks are scored with empty lots and vacant houses. Many families moved away for better schools and less crime, leaving behind mainly elderly and low income residents.
Today, around 1,700 people live in Larimer. The community, covering a half square mile, is ready to revitalize itself. But Pat Clark of the consulting group Jackson/Clark Partners, said tackling redevelopment even at that small scale can be overwhelming when there’s so much empty space.
“That ghost is horrible to live with," Clark said. "To know what once was there and to see it gone and to have no control over it is an awful thing.".
But the neighborhood is changing. At the corner of Larimer Avenue and Meadow Street, houses are going up as traffic moves through the intersection clogged with construction trucks.
It’s all largely due to the work of the Larimer Consensus Group. The group of community stakeholders formed in 2007, piggybacking on earlier grassroots efforts. With the help of state lawmakers, city government, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and nonprofits it put together a plan for the neighborhood’s future.
Clark and his business partner Traci Jackson helped the Larimer Consensus Group shape and organize its ideas. Traci Jackson said one of the unique qualities of the community is that its plan isn’t driven by developers or outside interests.
“The community owns the plan," Traci Jackson said. "That’s what’s so great. It was a plan that was created by the community and they own it and can sort of hold the implementation accountable.”
The Consensus Group’s Larimer Vision Plan, years in the works, was released in 2010. The plan is built to take advantage of the neighborhood’s open space. It’s based on a self-sustaining model that includes storm water management, environmentally friendly housing and park land.
But it goes beyond the physical space, said Donna Jackson, a longtime member of the group. She said it’s a blueprint for meeting the community’s needs.
“Housing, it was health, it was employment, it was recreation, school, churches, the whole gambit,” she said.
One thing the group didn’t want: gentrification and the displacement of longtime residents. Clark said keeping gentrification at bay will be a challenge.
“The problem of what happens when properties are valued greater than they once were, how does that impact affordable rental housing, how does that impact people on fixed incomes who own homes?" Clark said. "That’s not Larimer’s problem. That’s not even Pittsburgh’s problem. That’s a larger regional problem.”
That shift can be seen just across the way in Larimer’s bordering neighborhood of East Liberty. That community’s economic renaissance has been highly touted, but residents in Larimer also note the steeply rising price of housing there, as well as ballooning rents and big commercial retailers.
The $30 million Choice Neighborhood’s grant may help keep Larimer’s current residents from being priced out, but Fred Brown, associate director of programming and special projects at the nonprofit Kingsely Center, said it’s not enough.
“You can't put one year worth of funding or two years' worth of funding into a community and expect that to be so catalytic that it erases 40 years of disinvestment,” Brown said.
That kind of change will require commitment as residents work today for results that could take decades. Consensus group member Donna Jackson compared that level of patience and stamina to birthing a baby. What does that baby look like when it’s finally born?
“Beautiful lawns, flowers, trees, paved sidewalks. People laughing, talking, sitting out communing with each other," she said. "Not feeling deprived of anything.”
More new construction is set to begin this spring.
Editor's note: This post has been updated to correct a quote from Fred Brown, associate director of programming and special projects at the Kingsely Center.