Nearly everyone knows that Pittsburgh has been undergoing a transformation for some time. From the last steel mill closing in Southside in 1997 to companies like Uber, Apple, Disney and now Ford moving into the city (the latter making a $1 billion investment in Pittsburgh-based autonomous-vehicle research firm Argo AI), Pittsburgh has certainly been reinventing itself.
However, a lot of people stand to be “left behind” in Pittsburgh’s rapid redevelopment. This includes everyone from expatriates of the city to those who could be pushed out if gentrification overtakes them. I like to think there are ways of including everyone in the city’s success, and there are some people, companies, and organizations who are paving the way for that success.
Pittsburgh is Calling You Home
Take Holly Brubach, an esteemed journalist, consultant and now real estate developer who after a career in numerous cities outside of Pittsburgh, is returning to the city to build a boutique hotel. The Forbes, as it will be known, will be situated in the historic Granite Building in downtown Pittsburgh. This truly independent hotel will absolutely stunning with three bars, a brasserie style restaurant, and 104 gorgeously furbished rooms.
None of this would be possible without Holly, a Strip District native who has repatriated because of her connection with the Steel City. “Coming back is a way to reconnect with other people who share the same outlook on life, which to my mind has to do with kindness, hard work, and humility,” says Holly of herself and other “boomerangs” who grew up here but left and are now finding themselves coming back to the city. “There’s something genuine here, at a time when so much of what we see and deal with seems superficial and fake.”
The genuineness is also apparent in the many more recent college graduates returning to the city to make their marks on the city. People like Victoria Snyder, who graduated from the University of Mount Union in Northeast Ohio and left a job at Robert Morris University to move closer to the city and work to highlight Pittsburgh’s diversity. She founded Diversity Partners, a conduit organization that offers consulting services and training on diversity to organizations. She speaks highly of her role as being a “servant leader” and of “connecting people together to support not only the Pittsburgh community, but the greater Pittsburgh community.”
Another Pittsburgher making an impact in a more interesting way is Danielle Pastin, contractor and real estate developer by day and professional opera singer by night. Yes, that’s correct. Danielle travels all over the country to perform in operatic productions, including for Pittsburgh Opera, but retains her residence in Brighton Heights in addition to the various properties she manages and invests in around the Pittsburgh area. She’s constantly looking for more real estate to invest in, and this Jill of all trades doesn’t see her opera career slowing down anytime soon.
Finally, even Pittsburghers from as far away as San Francisco are making their way back home. Website developer Brittany Martin, who has designed websites for top organizations and events like the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the Three Rivers Art Festival, is returning home for a number of reasons she outlines on her blog. The vibrant tech community, low cost of living, high level of safety, and amount of family and friends in the city are all positive aspects she points out for returning to the city.
Hi Ho, Hi Ho, Off to Pittsburgh We Go!
More than just Pittsburghers see the value in coming back to Pittsburgh for continual investment and development. A number of developers have been returning to Pittsburgh to invest more money into more projects that support jobs, industries, and communities in the city. Chuck Hammel, owner of Pitt Ohio Express, has previously developed lofts and apartments in the Strip District. The businessman is now teaming up with his wife Kristen to convert an old warehouse in to 11 private apartments, costing about $18 million. Jack Benoff of Philadelphia-based Solara Ventures has been a frequent investor in Pittsburgh property, and his newest venture is another 35-40 unit apartment complex along Smallman Street, with a budget of about $8 million dollars. Finally, Dan McCaffery of Chicago-based McCaffery Interests has just won the rights to redevelop the Pittsburgh Produce Terminal, a $50 million project that will add office, retail, residential, and hotel space to the 100 year old property. And more development is poised to spring up all over the city, with undeveloped land and abandoned warehouses located on nearly every street.
There’s a Gloomy Side to Every Situation
All of this investment in Pittsburgh has its ups and downs. By including outsiders and insiders in Pittsburgh’s development, the community can ensure that at the end of the day, Pittsburgh works for everyone, not just for those that can afford to have a voice. The city also gets notoriety from involving a wide variety of groups in its progress; as the quantity and variety of interested citizens grows, so do the opportunities for more unique investments from the likes of Ford or Holly Brubach.
The downsides are just as relevant. All this investment means a lot of gentrification, and whether you like or dislike the idea of gentrification, there are significant challenges to overcome. Minority displacement, spikes in crime associated with gentrification (due to neighborhood destabilization and new targets for theft), and other problems need to be addressed head on. One solution would be to involve the groups most at-risk in the development process in high-level decisions and solutions to co-create value for everyone involved. For example, Pittsburgh City Councilor Daniel Lavelle notes that African-American women are the fastest growing entrepreneurial demographic in the country but have some of the lowest average incomes not only in the Pittsburgh region but also in the entire nation. Identifying and supporting investment and development that includes this critical and high-growth demographic, particularly in the associated impacted regions, is the best way to make sure that all involved parties benefit from Pittsburgh’s comeback.
Another downside happens to be Pittsburgh specific: how does a city ranked as the “Most Livable” by the economist six times since the year 2000 also rank second from the bottom in economic opportunity for African Americans? Carl Redwood of the Hills District Consensus Group of Pittsburgh says housing issues and zoning laws have been the toughest on the African American community. There is too much leniency for developers of high-income buildings and not enough support for those buildings and programs that benefit poorer citizens. A two-pronged approach is necessary to provide the necessary relief; the city government must not neglect the citizens who make Pittsburgh what it is, after all the titles and office complexes are gone. In addition, people like Victoria who make an impact through supporting those most at risk to the negative side of gentrification need just as much support and notoriety as Uber or Apple.
At the end of the day, what we see as Pittsburghers, whether old or new, is growth and progress on a fantastic scale. To keep up with the pace, everyone needs to be considered and included, whether you were born here, have a vested interest here, or have something to lose here.