Greensburg aims to trim vacancy rate, revive once-bustling downtown
A faded advertisement on the side of a looming brick building along South Main Street boasts "6 BIG FLOORS" of furniture for sale. But a peek inside the former Advance Furniture, vacant since the 1980s, reveals a cavernous space filled only with debris.
Ceiling tiles and crumbled wall plaster cover the floor.
A colorful poster installed years ago to hide the blight urges passersby to see Greensburg through a "different lens," extolling the city's cultural heritage and entrepreneurial spirit. But the poster, and others like it on other vacant buildings nearby, has largely faded and peeled away.
The Advance Furniture building is an extreme but not unusual example of blight in the city. Many of Greensburg's largest, oldest buildings, mostly dating to the early 1900s, have been vacant for decades.
Yet there are some signs of rebirth. Historic buildings like the former Troutman's and LaRose department stores have been recently renovated. The Westmoreland Museum of American Art and Seton Hill University have spent tens of millions of dollars expanding existing facilities and building new ones. There's a new apartment complex on College Avenue.
There are two downtown Greensburgs: one on the rise, the other stuck in a decades-long battle with neglect. People who live and work here disagree about which version will prevail.
"To me, the city of Greensburg is on the cusp of becoming something better," said Barbara Ciampini, who has served as municipal planning director for 33 years.
Ciampini points toward recent investment — including three developers that have announced plans to build new apartments downtown within the last few months.
Patrick Thomas, who has owned Joseph Thomas Flower Shop since 1982, isn't so sure. His family started the flower shop in 1895.
The city would have to come a long way to become the commercial hub it was 30 years ago, he said.
"The town was just bustling. There were always people on the street," he said.
He still gets enough customers to maintain a steady business, but it's not like it was — and Thomas doubts it will ever be again. Malls lured shoppers away from downtown retail shops, then the internet lured them away from the malls, and there's no clear path forward for small cities to regain what they lost, he said.
"I can't imagine an easy solution," he said.
Around downtown, the Tribune-Review found about 20 percent of commercial properties vacant. Vacancies are peppered throughout the city, with larger clusters of empty space near some of the largest empty buildings on South Main Street and South Pennsylvania Avenue. A 2017 survey of 138 downtown storefronts by the Greensburg Community Development Corp. confirmed that vacancy rate, which hasn't changed in years.
The large buildings with the crumbling interiors, branded with a red "X" to warn first responders and the public that they are unsafe, are a longstanding problem, Ciampini said.
"The buildings that are vacant have been vacant for over 15 years, because those are the hardest ones to develop," she said.
In many cases the city has taken legal action against more than a dozen absentee owners who don't keep their buildings up to code, trying to get them to make repairs or pay large fines.
"We're working on all these things, but sometimes it takes years," Ciampini said.
Some property owners say the city makes them cut through too much bureaucratic red tape, discouraging development.
"I'm done spending money in this town. As far as I'm concerned, I'm going to sell everything pretty soon," said John Harris, who owns four downtown commercial properties, including the Stereoshop on East Pittsburgh Street.
Harris thinks the process should be easier to get the myriad permits, inspections and approvals needed to renovate a building and open a business.
"The city makes it difficult to do anything. They make you jump through hoops," he said.
The city contracts with Code.sys to handle business inspections, permitting and code enforcement. The Millvale company has representatives in Greensburg a few times a week, but they can be hard to reach, which makes moving forward with renovations difficult, Harris said.
Ciampini said the city embraces development but is required to uphold the state's Uniform Construction Code.
"It's just the naysayers who don't want to have to deal with any process, but we follow the code; it is what it is," she said.
Both sides need to be flexible, said Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress in Washington, D.C., and author of "Bringing Buildings Back."
Developers need to realize the rules must be followed, while officials need to take a look at the rules to make sure they're striking a delicate balance between fostering growth, maintaining safety and preserving a neighborhood's character.
"It's much easier to be rigid and just say, 'Go by the book,'" he said.
Mallach has never been to Greensburg, but he has seen the same story in many other cities.
"You've got that mall out of town, and that probably sops up most of the retail business in the area. It's hard to make a small city downtown thrive because most of the business is happening out on the highway, in the malls and the shopping center," he said.
Small cities can thrive by finding an economic niche that's not catered to by shopping malls and big-box stores, Mallach said.
Greensburg has some advantages, such Seton Hill and a cultural scene that includes the Palace Theatre and the Westmoreland Museum of American Art.
But making those disparate elements work together to create a strong urban identity is not easy, Mallach said.
"Every city has to figure out, as best it can, what it has going for it," he said. "That's not easy when you're a small city."
Playing to strengths
Greensburg has taken some steps to play to its strengths. The city and the Greensburg Community Development Corp. in 2015 created a special health care zoning district in an attempt to spur development around Excela Health Westmoreland Hospital. The same year, the city created a tax break for developers who make major improvements to downtown properties. Only one project has qualified so far.
The city is part of the Westmoreland County Land Bank, which buys and renovates dilapidated properties before selling them to private owners. The land bank owns four vacant commercial properties in Greensburg.
The stubborn 20 percent vacancy rate remains, but Ciampini predicts the gradual signs of revival over the past few years will continue to accumulate and eventually reach a critical mass.
"Where else is that happening? It's not happening in Jeannette. It's not happening in New Kensington. It's not happening in Latrobe. It's happening in downtown Greensburg," she said.
Laura Knopf and Cathy Voss are betting on downtown. The pair plan to open Serenity Bead Shop & Studio on South Main in September.
"It's such a pretty town. There's some beautiful buildings and architecture, and I think the city really wants more businesses to come in," Voss said.
They were worried about the dilapidated state of some of the buildings they looked at to rent, and both were taken aback by the number of steps they needed to take to get the inspection, occupancy permit and signage permits required to open. But they're happy with their location, hard at work on their storefront, and pleased with the price.
They rented a downtown storefront for about $1,000 a month, far less than an equivalent amount of space would have cost on busy Route 30 in Hempfield.
"The landlords are beginning to realize they need to get people in here," Knopf said.
According to listings on commercial real estate website Loopnet.com, most leases in Greensburg can range anywhere from $6-$15 per square foot per year, with most properties falling in the middle of that range.
Even the Advance Furniture Building, one of the city's most prominent eyesores, might be on the brink of rehabilitation.
Officials called the building Greensburg's "white elephant" because of its longstanding extreme dilapidation, and have never been able to get the owner to repair it. But the building was sold last year.
"I'm working with a lot of people who are trying to save it, not demolish it," said developer Angela Williams, the new owner. "The repairs are huge, and everyone has to be involved."
Although Williams isn't ready to discuss her plans, she said she wants to turn the building into a retail or entertainment space. Renovations likely will start within a year, she said.
Mallach said fighting blight is possible, but it requires everyone working together.
If Greensburg is to find a solution, it will require effort from all the stakeholders, businesspeople, property owners and government, he said.
"It really takes everybody sitting down and trying to think this through, to come up with a middle ground," Mallach said.
Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646 or email@example.com.