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New Kensington plans to 'party with purpose'

| Sunday, April 12, 2015, 12:30 a.m.
Dan Speicher | For Trib Total Media
Andrew Howard, cofounder of the Better Block revitalization movement, talks to a group of more than 30 people outside Westmoreland County Community College in New Kensington on Friday, April 10, 2015. Howard is assisting local planners organize a Better Block event on May 2 along Fourth and Fifth avenues in New Kensington.
Dan Speicher | For Trib Total Media
Andrew Howard, cofounder of the Better Block revitalization movement, talks to a walking tour in front of a vacant bank building at the corner of Ninth Street and Fourth Avenue in New Kensington on Friday, April 10, 2015. Howard is assisting local planners organize a Better Block event on May 2 along Fourth and Fifth avenues in New Kensington.
Dan Speicher | For Trib Total Media
Andrew Howard, cofounder of the Better Block revitalization movement, talks to a group of more than 30 people at Westmoreland County Community College in New Kensington on Friday, April 10, 2015. Howard is assisting local planners organize a Better Block event on May 2 along Fourth and Fifth avenues in New Kensington.
Dan Speicher | For Trib Total Media
Jessica Levine, left, manager of the Habitat For Humanity ReStore, and Andrew Howard, cofounder of the Better Block revitalization movement, discuss a proposed performance space on a vacant lot at the corner of Fourth Avenue and 10th Street in New Kensington on Friday, April 10, 2015. Howard is assisting local planners organize a Better Block event on May 2 along Fourth and Fifth avenues in New Kensington.
Dan Speicher | For Trib Total Media
D. Whit Watts, an Indiana University of Pennsylvania professor of geography and regional planning whose students are helping to revitalize New Kensington, on Friday, April 10, 2015, talks at Westmoreland County Community College in New Kensington about their participation in the Better Block event planned for May 2.
Dan Speicher | For Trib Total Media
Andrew Howard, cofounder of the Better Block revitalization movement, talks to a group of more than 30 people at Westmoreland County Community College in New Kensington on Friday, April 10, 2015. Howard is assisting local planners organize a Better Block event on May 2 along Fourth and Fifth avenues in New Kensington.

Walking through New Kensington's downtown Friday morning, Andrew Howard saw coffee shops and cafes, bike lanes and pedestrians, performance spaces and a beer garden.

Like a hologram obscuring the vacant lots, empty storefronts and deserted sidewalks, Howard's vision is being embraced by dozens of local disciples who plan to make it a reality on May 2.

Better Block organizers that Saturday plan to “gussy up” the building facades of a few New Kensington blocks and bolster the existing tenants with food and craft vendors, art installations, performers, prospective businesses, landscaping and play spaces.

The souped-up block party serves not only to temporarily bring people back to downtown New Kensington, but also to act as a catalyst for a more permanent revitalization.

“A party with a purpose,” is how Howard, a Dallas-based urban planner attached to Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, described the Better Block movement he cofounded in 2010.

During a two-day visit to the Alle-Kiski Valley last week, Howard spelled out the Better Block philosophy of spurring revitalization from the bottom up rather than from the top down.

Howard said a conventional model of urban renewal is to plan extensively and count on government to organize large-scale change — a process that can take years and cost millions.

The Better Block model instead relies on the efforts of loosely connected entrepreneurs, artists and activists whose individual improvements snowball into neighborhood renewal.

“It's 100 small things that make something great,” Howard said.

A smile with missing teeth

Dodging the raindrops Friday during a walking tour of the 900 and 1000 blocks of Fourth and Fifth avenues, it would have been easy to focus on the shortfalls.

Like a smile full of missing teeth, empty storefronts and barren lots where blighted buildings have been razed are as common as viable businesses.

But Howard and New Kensington's cheerleaders still see the smile.

“Look at these buildings!” said Michele Watts, a master gardener and wife of Indiana University of Pennsylvania Professor D. Whit Watts whose planning students are assisting the city. She was charmed by the architectural details and vintage “ghost sign” advertisements for tobacco and flour on the faded brick walls.

Even some city residents on the tour were surprised to find buildings that weren't as vacant or as run down as they appeared at first glance.

Marvin Williams, who owns a number of commercial properties on Fourth and Fifth avenues, pointed to one building he said is the base of a scientist. Another building, the former Altmeyer's home store, is used to store a private collection of vintage computers.

Williams gave the group an impromptu peek inside two of his available buildings. Howard declared 936 Fourth Ave. ripe for an art gallery or mixed-use shop.

The visitors enjoyed the vivid red carpet and white display cases at the former Bloser's Jewelers store on Fifth Avenue, where window writing declared, “This place has character!”

Sean Bridgen of Arnold, an advising coordinator at Penn State New Kensington, was enthusiastic about a former diner on Fourth Avenue that is thought to be move-in ready.

Howard pointed to several promising signs of life: the full parking spaces on Fourth Avenue near the Community Health Clinic, the scent of fresh-baked bread wafting from the newly opened Bakery on Fifth Avenue, the draw of the Westmoreland County Community College and Career Training Academy on Fifth Avenue, even the shade trees along the sidewalks.

“You've got people coming here. Now how do you keep them here?” he said.

New Ken needs ‘third places'

Howard said Main Street revitalization often centers around “third places” — the stores, restaurants and entertainment venues people visit when they aren't at home or at work.

“Everybody complains there's no place to hang out, except bars,” Bridgen said. And even bars are absent from the Better Block target area.

The block party on May 2 is meant to bombard participants with the possibilities for those third places. Howard likens the event to speed dating.

A large grass lot at the corner of Fourth Avenue and 10th Street will host a temporary stage for performers organized by Allegheny Township Supervisor Ren Steele, a cofounder of the Freeport Theatre Festival. The space will be surrounded by murals from Valley Junior-Senior High School students.

Catty corner from the stage, an outdoor beer garden is planned beside a burned out building on 10th Street that is slated for demolition.

Jessica Levine, manager of the Habitat for Humanity ReStore shop on Freeport Street, is booking food and craft vendors and arranging for Pittsburgh-based City of Play to host games for children and adults.

Rather than group all of the vendors in a Fourth Avenue parking lot beside the Community Clothes Closet, Howard recommended the planners sprinkle them throughout the blocks to “fill in the missing teeth.” He asked Williams to make available some of his storefronts for vendors — adding a bustling appearance while getting people into the available space.

“You need to get people in there,” Howard said. “There's something about getting into an empty building. It's like an open house. It allows people to dream. You might get someone who falls in love with it.”

Howard encouraged the planners to incorporate as many art projects, displays, “pop-up shop” mini businesses and other aesthetic improvements and activities as possible.

Howard pointed to the empty display case at the scientist's building and the sheet-shrouded windows at the Altmeyer's building — simply sprucing up those display areas would add vibrancy, he said.

The IUP students are working to create temporary bike lanes, crosswalks and street pavement art. Allegheny Township Manager Greg Primm, president of the Westmoreland Economic Development Initiative for Growth, said bringing bicycle enthusiasts to the city can help to promote the goal of connecting hiking and biking trails through the Alle-Kiski Valley.

The Rev. Bob Henry at Logans Ferry Presbyterian Church in Parnassus is working with developer Steve Kubrick to add flowers and landscaping to the target area.

“I've got an emotional tie here,” said Henry, who's not a resident but recalls shopping for his wife's wedding dress material and his newborn children's clothing in New Kensington. “I believe New Kensington can be a better place.”

Partnerships and people

Howard said New Kensington is already farther along than many of the 60-plus communities with which Better Block has worked, thanks to the partnerships already formed.

“You've already made it better,” he said.

Howard and Allen Kukovich, president of the Smart Growth Partnership that helped to bring Better Block to the city, pointed to the presence Friday of New Kensington Mayor Tom Guzzo, Westmoreland County planning director Jason Rigone and state Rep. Frank Dermody's chief of staff as evidence of town hall support. Howard said community leaders haven't always been on board when Better Block first comes to town.

Howard said equally impressive is the grass roots support, from regional planning organizations, local businesses and nonprofits to individuals from New Kensington and surrounding towns.

That doesn't surprise Guzzo: “The biggest resource is our good people.”

Howard said the flavor of individual Better Block projects varies depending on the culture of the community.

“It's kind of like the ‘Iron Chef' — you've got all these ingredients and you're going to make this very unique New Kensington dish.”

Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-2680 or lhayes@tribweb.com.

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