Downtown leader: John Valentine wants to create a '24-hour city'
With a background in restaurants, John Valentine used to concentrate on the whole menu. Now, Pittsburgh is his main entree.
It is a career change he can handle.
Valentine, 57, is president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association and executive director and founder of what he calls the "brand, spanking new" Pittsburgh Downtown Community Development Corp. The new group is trying to make Downtown a more viable shopping area.
"I think I will be happy doing this for the rest of my life," says Valentine, one of the key figures in Downtown development. "When I started, the thought of making even small differences really lit me up."
He came to Pittsburgh in 2004 as part of a restaurant development plan. It didn't go anywhere, but he opened his own venue in 2007 and started getting involved in civic tasks.
"There are a couple of leaders you see involved in every Downtown issue, and he's one of them," says Todd Palcic, the owner of Penn Avenue Renaissance, the firm developing three residential sites along the Penn Avenue thoroughfare.
Joanna Doven, press secretary for Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, calls Valentine "a people person" who stays in touch with all levels of activity Downtown and "keeps his finger on the pulse of the scene."
Jeremy Waldrup is president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, a group that acts as a conduit between residential and business development. He watches Valentine's activity with great interest.
"This is a great time for Downtown," he says. "We are eager to see what he will do with the community development group."
A taste for business
Valentine was born in Philadelphia, went to what is now is Lock Haven University and worked for General Electric before going to New York City, where he got involved in the restaurant business.
After opening two successful restaurants in New York City, he became involved with the investment-development group, Madison Marquette, which was working on Pittsburgh's Fifth-Forbes Corridor plan, a hot development strategy in the early 2000s.
It might have been hot, but it never reached cooking temperature. Valentine, however, was attracted to Pittsburgh.
"No. 1, the people were great," he says. "They just reach out to you. But then you could see what the city could be. I had seen Philadelphia redo Center City, and I could see the same thing happening here."
He moved to Pittsburgh in 2004 and became a member of the Neighborhood Association in 2007.
He opened Palate Bistro on Sixth Street in 2007. It was across the street from Heinz Hall, just up from the Byham Theater, and seemed to be in a good spot to succeed.
It was succeeding, too, with an innovative menu, good wine list and prices that did not threaten the mortgage payment. But it was a demanding business. Months after opening it, he resigned his role as president of the Neighborhood Association.
In 2009, he sold Palate Bistro when he got an offer for the place "that was so good, I could not pass it up."
The site never has reopened. As late as 2010, Valentine talked about wanting to get back into running a restaurant. That same year, he returned to the Downtown Neighborhood Association and his work in civic jobs increased.
Now, he doesn't think he'll go back into the restaurant business.
Rebuilding the 'Burgh
Valentine constantly is promoting residential life Downtown. His efforts include helping developers solve minor issues in their complexes to holding meetings with residents to discuss problems.Waldrup says the current Downtown population is 7,200 -- double what it was in 2000. He says there is $4.8 billion of work under way in development, including residential, commercial and educational projects.
The community development committee is an effort to lure more businesses Downtown to create Valentine's vision of a "24-hour city." He wants to see it return to its days as a shopping hub, a more difficult task with the loss of Saks Fifth Avenue. His first project is the development of what he sees as an urban boutique of women's clothing stores that would join men's stores such as Heinz Healey's, Larrimor's and Nettleton shoes to create a string of attractive shops from Wood Street to Market Square. Thirty firms already have expressed interest in the plan.
Downtown restaurateurs and shop owners want to make the city an attractive -- perhaps irresistible -- place to shop, Valentine says. There are discussions underway about how to blend the dinner and shopping elements to draw customers Downtown.
"If it works one night, you do it again, and maybe Pittsburgh becomes what it once was," he says. "You look back at what Pittsburgh was like six years ago, and see what it is now, and you wonder what it can be in another six years."
He does worry, however, about mass transit and infrastructure in the area. He believes government leaders need to pay more attention to those issues if the area is to develop.
Doven and Waldrup seem pleased to have him in efforts to enliven the city.
"He's always at the table, discussing things," Waldrup says, "whether it is with the mayor or any other group."
Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, says Valentine and the trust "cross paths" in many ways. He says the trust has been a long-time advocate of Downtown residency and offers many of its free programs with that group in mind.
Because Valentine always is working on residency, "we are helping to reinforce one another," McMahon says. "He is a great supporter of all things Downtown."
Doven says Valentine's work spreads from the groups he leads to other projects, too. She says he shows up in discussions about the Market Square-oriented projects of Jack Piatt's Millcraft Industries and the renovation of old sites by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.
"He works at building on Pittsburgh's current strength," she says.