West End creates a resurgence
West End Village keeps finding believers.
The community that not long ago was a collection of boarded storefronts now is adding brand-conscious retailers. Its streets once were threatened by the flooding of Saw Mill Run. Now, they are the site of one gazebo-bearing parklet and another that this summer is the home to one of the Citiparks outside movie programs.
The effort toward improvement continues in any number of ways:
• Steinway Piano Gallery Pittsburgh opened a 3,000-square-foot headquarters on Main Street for its area operation in March and is looking for a 10,000-square-foot site to meet an expansion. Its president, Patricia Neeper, says that location will be in the village. “We're here to stay,” she says.
• The Pittsburgh Marathon altered its route so it passed through the West End in 2011 and, after two successful years there, it is a definite part of the course, says race director Patrice Matamoros. “The West End is the new Bloomfield,” she says. City Council gave the community's marathon event its top prize for community festivals.
• Kent Edwards and Cathy McCollom, owners of Somerset County architectural and planning firms, are expanding into Pittsburgh and are looking to finalize a move into the village. “There are a lot of good communities in Pittsburgh, but this is a great one,” Edwards says. “I am impressed they drew up a master plan and then did not just put it on a shelf.”
Joanna Doven, spokeswoman for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, calls West End Village “one of the best locations in the city of Pittsburgh for a business,” because of its location and ease of access.
Louis Bucci, executive director of the West End Village Development Group, says these and other steps are part of a realization members of the group had about 1 1⁄2 years ago, when it became a separate part of the West Pittsburgh Partnership.
“We realized that we didn't have an identity crisis,” he says. “We didn't have an identity.”
City Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, who represents the area, agrees that not long ago, many people did not know anything about the West End.
“Now, the progress is being watched by other communities,” she says.
Shopping for a new life
Bucci says there were two key elements to the idea of reviving the area. One was a 2005 award for $8 million to have the U.S. Corps of Engineers study and begin work on a plan to reduce the flood danger from Saw Mill Run.
When dredging and other work is completed, he says, the community will be considered to be in a flood plain, rather than the “five times worse” floodway.
“That will make a huge difference in getting insurance for projects and getting people interested in them,” he says.
Second, and almost as important, was a realization that the West End Village is different from the other 15 neighborhoods in the West Pittsburgh Partnership. Its business orientation makes it far different from the residential areas of Sheraden, Elliott or Banksville.
Bucci and the partnership team decided to more clearly define the area. It became known as West End Village.
“We said: ‘What does a village have? A police station? Got it. A library? Got it. A bank? Got it,' ” Bucci says. “We realized we have a village.”
They got a Massachusetts planning firm to develop a master plan for renewal and went about restoring what was once a thriving business area.
Dover says the city's Storefront Renovation program, which provides matching grants for building upkeep, has been a part of the village's renewal projects.
Ned Gensler, president of Caldwell's Windoware on Wabash Avenue, is a West End native who remembers the 1950s, when the area was filled with residents doing their shopping in their neighborhood. Gensler, a member of the Partnership board, thinks the mall mentality and big-box-store dominance make a return to those days impossible,
But he thinks destination-shopping can create a different kind of commercial success. Along with Steinway, the village is going that direction with the James Gallery, Ceramiche Tile & Stone and Jacob Evans Kitchen & Bath, he says.
Being a destination requires easy access and plenty of parking, both of which are part of the village, says James Frederick from the art gallery that bears his first name.
Michael Bonato, owner of the kitchen store named after his two sons, says it's a matter of “location, location. It's convenient to Downtown. You can get on Routes 65 or 28 in minutes. I had a client base when I founded this place and they have no trouble getting here.”
Ray Hanis, however, says destination shopping has one drawback: customers come and go, but seldom linger.
He is one of the owners of the Village Tavern & Trattoria and would like to see more businesses that provide foot-traffic.
“I see the improvement,” he says, “but the West End (improvement) is a slow process. I hope it doesn't keep going as slowly as it looks.”
Many parts to the puzzle
Bucci knows residential growth is a big piece in the West End puzzle and has three plans he's advancing. They involve a high-end, gated community, lower-income homes and mid-range townhouses. In his office, maps show the areas with colored pins indicating the ownership status of all the involved properties.
Those plans, he says, would more than double the population of the village, which now is 402.
He admits the juggling of the projects — residential and commercial — is one of the most difficult aspects of the overall project. Luring businesses into renewable properties is a little easier than undertaking residential jobs that require more work, he says.
But he also is trying to make the middle of town more attractive with parks, trees and new lighting.
Such work can draw criticism. The Village Tavern's Hanis, for instance, wonders if the space of the new mid-town park would have been better used for store fronts.
But Bucci says the overall plan for the area has a storefront building behind the park. It is off Main Street, but should still serve to spark foot traffic, he says.
It is important to strike a balance in these jobs, he says. It is as important to give people a reason to come into the village, and the park could help with that. In the same line of thinking, he points out a building where he hopes to lure a grocery store. But he knows landing a grocery right now would be tough,
State Rep. Dan Deasy, who is enthusiastic about Bucci's “great vision,” agrees “a store probably wouldn't come before the people. It's all about timing.”
Deasy, who represents the area, is a native of Banksville, also in the West End Partnership, and a resident of Westwood, another area community.
He sees the growth of life in the area first-hand. He claims to get a lot of business from his village office and mentions a “really crazy” Friday evening recently when the Village Tavern was bustling with customers headed to a Pirates game or the Three Rivers Arts Festival.
“The West End is opening some peoples' eyes,” he says.
Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7852.