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Project Pop-up gives new life to empty storefronts

| Friday, Jan. 6, 2012

If you haven't been Downtown in a while, you might not have noticed that the Golden Triangle really is coming back to life. And not just human (or pigeon) life, either. Other sentient beings are making their presence felt.

On Sixth Street, across from Heinz Hall, a pair of glowing blue eyes peer out from a long-vacant storefront, now suffused with a warm, golden glow. The eyes, above an electric-blue frown, look annoyed.

The sign on the door reads "Fraley's Robot Repair -- Away on Vacation!"

"You'll get the small minority of people that are totally confused -- like, 'Why is there a robot-repair shop?' " artist Toby Fraley says. "It's fun to watch people -- they'll see it first out of the corner of their eye, then, whip their head around and get a big smile on their face."

"Fraley's Robot Repair," an art installation, is part of Project Pop-up -- a creative solution to a persistent problem Downtown, and in many business districts.

Project Pop-up fills several empty Downtown storefronts with new, temporary tenants, ranging from art installations to functioning retail businesses. Artists get a high-profile place to display their work. Retailers get start-up funds and a location to test out their business. Landlords (and prospective tenants) get to look at something more interesting than an empty room.

"What's happening is that property owners are kindly donating the property for six months to a year free of rent to the program participants," says Project Pop-up director Bethany Tucke, a consultant for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. "Then, (the participants) get a grant for $1,500 to $10,000 to fully produce their idea."

The project began as a collaboration between the mayor's office, the Downtown Partnership and the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

For instance, there's The Sweet Lounge, a soon-to-open "bakery lounge" on Penn Avenue with fresh pastries in the window. There's also the artisan boutique Burgheoisie, and Awesome Books -- a new branch of the Garfield-based used bookstore.

More than 90 artists, entrepreneurs and non-profits submitted proposals for Project Pop-up, including a number from out of town. A small curatorial committee sliced it down to 12 finalists, most of which debuted between Light-Up Night and First Night. A few -- like the ice-cream shop Dream Cream and Bike Pittsburgh's bicycle parking project -- will wait until spring. "Since there really isn't a bookstore Downtown, except for Bradley's on the fifth floor of Macy's, it's a great opportunity," says Awesome Books co-owner Laura Jean McLaughlin, who received the maximum $10,000 grant. "I think there's a lot of potential Downtown."

With the grant money, Awesome Books was able to finance the build-out of a fairly raw space on Liberty Avenue, and to expand its inventory -- which now includes new books, and used.

They plan to stock all genres of books, with a special emphasis on specialties like poetry, art and the local books section. They plan to stick around Downtown after the year-long Project Pop-up lease ends.

If someone else offers full market value for the space, that's OK, McLaughlin says.

"We just really like all our neighbors," she says. "We're right across the street from the August Wilson Center. The Toonseum, Bricolage are there on the same block. We're really excited to be a part of that community. ... We've expressed interest, and have already talked to people from the Cultural District about finding a location permanently if this one doesn't work out."

The pop-up concept has been successful in some cities, particularly when done with restaurants. Pittsburgh's Project Pop-up, however, has a different emphasis.

"What we're finding is other cities like Seattle, New York City and Baltimore have done pop-up art programs," Tucke says. "But from the research we've done, Pittsburgh is the first to include a retail aspect to this. It's a new model, and we hope it works out well."

Project Pop-up was seeded by a $25,000 grant from the Urban Redevelopment Authority. Grants from the Heinz Endowments, the Colcom Foundation and an anonymous donor expanded it.

For Fraley, the "Robot Repairs" space allowed him to break into the public-art realm, something he's always wanted to do. Up to this point, he has sold his retro-style robots at the Three Rivers Arts Festival, and to places like Children's Hospital.

"I love vintage Americana stuff," Fraley says. "It's sad to see TV-repair shops and shoe-repair shops disappearing. I kind of want to replicate one of those, but with a service that never really existed. So, I went with a robot-repair shop."

He designed the shop's look down to the paint cans ("Robot Grade," "Asbestos Filled!"), and filled the room with vintage tools, for a bright, cheery '50s space-age look. It's a fitting home for his homemade retro-futuristic robots, at least until they're "repaired."

The robots are made from household items like "jugs and coffee Thermoses and vacuum cleaners," Fraley says.

"Mostly metal -- not much plastic," he says. "Plastic gets weird and brittle over the years. Stuff back then was better quality -- American-made, cast aluminum, pressed steel. It was inherently valuable regardless, because it was made out of quality materials."

For landlords, the appeal of Project Pop-up isn't a mystery.

"Quite frankly, they weren't asking a whole lot of me," says Merrill Stabile, the landlord for three Project Pop-up storefronts. "It was like, 'Can we use your space• If you find a new tenant, you can move them in.'

"I'm very optimistic, but leasing retail space continues to be a challenge. They're planting seeds here. We're hoping they grow into something. If not, it's better than them sitting empty for this whole time."

A Downtown Pop-up tour will be held on a yet-to-be-announced date in late January or early February.

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Project Pop-up

Project Pop-up

The project fills several empty Downtown storefronts with new, temporary tenants, ranging from art installations to functioning retail businesses.

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