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HomeKennywood: a 10-day roller coaster ride

Posted by Elwin Green on September 19, 2011 at 9:15 PM

Recent events have reminded me that I need to blog more often in order to keep up. A lot more often.

9/8, Thursday: members of the Bridging the Busway steering committee receive an email informing us that a development team has been chosen to do the first phase of development around the Busway: commercial developer Oxford Development, architectural firm Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, and homebuilder S&A Homes.

9/12, Monday: I, along with the other Bridging the Busway steering committee members, receive an email from Rob Stephany, executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, in which he says, "Despite what the media may have reported, (the development team members) are not set on any one idea.  Senior housing is needed, but they are more interested in the making sure the first project we take on sets the stage for the vision you all have created." This is the second time in two days that I have heard someone refer to senior housing, but I haven't seen the media report(s) he's talking about, so I am confused.

9/13, Tuesday: In an apparently unrelated matter, I meet with Jason Tigano of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Alan Sisco of Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh, and some of their staff to discuss their proposal for an event on October 13-14, which will have three parts: 1) RTB repairing between three and six houses for low-income senior homeowners on Mt. Vernon and Race Streets; 2) URA decorating vacant houses (at least one per block) on Race Street with vinyl coverings to make them look occupied; and 3) DPW workers trimming and cleaning vacant lots on Race Street. Between RTP, URA and DPW, there would likely be 75-80 volunteers on Race Street to help transform the street in two days. I am excited.

That evening, I attend Operation Better Block's second community meeting to inform residents about what the organization is doing. Attendance is sparse. Contrary to my recent pattern, I don't even try to live-tweet this event: my phone's battery is too unreliable. Instead, I record audio, and shoot a few video clips.

To my surprise, Cafe 524, a project that I would have considered too innocuous to generate controversy, does. After staffer Demi Kolke gives her presentation about it, former City Council candidate Lucille Prater-Holiday says "What is this Cafe 524 project?" setting the tone for a lively exchange, with sentiments ranging from "We don't need a coffeehouse" to the suggestion that we can create our own coffeehouse without the URA's help by ripping the boards off a vacant building and occupying it with a Mr. Coffee machine.

I leave that meeting flummoxed. The next morning, I find myself fantasizing that I had responded to the first sentiment by saying that I live in Homewood and I do need a coffeehouse, along with a grocery store, an art gallery, and everything else. Or to the second sentiment by saying, "Great idea, brother - go for it! How can I help?"

9/14, Wednesday: I visit Judy Wagner, of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, for conversation and a tour of her agency. Everyone there seems remarkably gracious. She informs me about Seeding Prosperity And Revitalizing Corridors (SPARC), a land use program in Larimer that could at the very least inform our work on Race Street, and possibly provide a model. I am encouraged.

Then I meet Patrick Moore, director of development at the Warhol, and Kilolo Luckett, project manager for the Warhol's Homewood residency project, for lunch and a tour. We may work together in the future, but this is not about that, this is about relationship, and I've learned to be comfortable with simply getting to know interesting people.


Then to Pitt's Small Business Development Center, where I consult with staffer Rhonda Carson Leach about developing "Homewood Nation" into a business. I leave energized to work on my business plan.


Then to the Bridging the Busway steering committee, where the committee members are introduced to, and hear from, Ken Doyno, of Rothschild Doyno, and Andy Haines from S&A Homes. No one from Oxford Development attends. Mr. Haines explains how a request for qualifications to choose a developer morphed into a request for a proposal for a specific project, before the overall visioning process that was to guide all the projects around the Busway was complete. Essentially, the explanation is: tax credits that could be worth millions focus on senior housing (and low-income housing). So, to go after the tax credits, it was decided to do a senior housing project.


So, instead of planning a meeting to present residents with a document and saying, "This is the vision that has emerged from your input," we seem to be planning a meeting to present residents with a plan to build something that residents have not said they want.


Shawn Carter, Councilman Ricky Burgess' chief of staff, acknowledges that the committee had never talked about senior housing, and that residents hadn't either, but says that as he thought about it, he concluded that senior housing might work.


Ken Doyno shows us drawings for different ways the project might look. They all show the project being built around Cafe 524: first-floor retail with two or three floors of senior housing above, on both sides of the one-story former church.


Real estate broker and former council candidate Judy Ginyard asks Operation Better Block executive director Jerome Jackson if there was a plan B if the community did not agree with the project plan. Mr. Jackson says he doesn't know. Soon after, Councilman Burgess arrives and speaks intensely and at length about Homewood's window of opportunity, in which all levels of government are ready to invest in Homewood for the first time in decades, and about how this project needs to happen, and that he will make sure that it does, contingent upon getting the tax credits. But not contingent upon any decision by the community, because the community decided in May, when voters chose him to represent us, and he'll represent us now by pushing for this project, with or without anyone's approval.


That may be sound political theory; he is our representative. But I'm not sure how well it went over.


9/15, Thursday: I complete my certification as a community producer with PCTV 21, Pittsburgh's public access channel. That means I can expand "Homewood Nation" into a television program on PCTV, with the first show being about the Oct. 13-14 transformation of Race Street. I am excited.


9/16, Friday: Operation Better Block's board meets. Cafe 524 is on the agenda, and board members acknowledge the likelihood that the building will be razed rather than that a set of new buildings will be configured around it to keep it intact. I think it safe to say that I am the only board member who was passionate about Cafe 524. Thus, I go into a funk for the rest of the day. First, the decision to do a senior housing project on N. Homewood Avenue (made by whom, exactly, and when?) made it seem that all the time I spent to help get community input into the Bridging the Busway process was wasted; now it seems that the time, energy, emotion and money that I invested in trying to help make Cafe 524 happen will also have been wasted.


I'm not sure whether I am depressed, enraged, or both.


That evening, talking to my wife about it, I say that while I may calm down later, right now what I feel is, f*** it. If this is what community work is like, then f*** it all, and let me concentrate on my business.


9/15, Saturday: I begin the day by joining fellow members of the Save Race Street Committee to do a cleanup in the 7400 block. Compared to recent events, raking and bagging foliage and debris with people I care about, on our street, is a touch of heaven. I am so proud and grateful to be their neighbor.


I leave to attend Block Watch Plus, the monthly gathering of block association members. OBB staffer Jose Diaz leads the meeting, in which five residents share concerns, questions, and ideas. Next month, I'll be leading the meeting as the group's new chair, with the goal of making Block Watch Plus unavoidable; that is, to build it to such size and effectiveness that no one would dare attempt anything major in Homewood without consulting this group of residents. At the end of the meeting, I am confident. Even at the risk of being delusional.

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