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Pittsburgh's Allentown reinventing itself 1 storefront at a time

| Saturday, March 25, 2017, 1:54 p.m.
People sit inside of Black Forge Coffee House 
in Allentown on Monday, March 13, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
People sit inside of Black Forge Coffee House in Allentown on Monday, March 13, 2017.
Jordyn Bowser, 9, of Brentwood sits with her family, Toni Lysaught (second from left) and Katie Pavlick (third from left), both of Brentwood, at Onion Maiden, Wednesday, March 22, 2017. Onion Maiden is a vegan food business that opened in Allentown earlier this month.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Jordyn Bowser, 9, of Brentwood sits with her family, Toni Lysaught (second from left) and Katie Pavlick (third from left), both of Brentwood, at Onion Maiden, Wednesday, March 22, 2017. Onion Maiden is a vegan food business that opened in Allentown earlier this month.
Co-Owners of Onion Maiden (from left) Brooks Criswell, Diana 'Dingo' Ngo and Elyse Hoffman pose for a portrait at the restaurant, Wednesday, March 22, 2017. Onion Maiden is a vegan food business that opened in Allentown earlier this month.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Co-Owners of Onion Maiden (from left) Brooks Criswell, Diana 'Dingo' Ngo and Elyse Hoffman pose for a portrait at the restaurant, Wednesday, March 22, 2017. Onion Maiden is a vegan food business that opened in Allentown earlier this month.
Alex Malit, 24, of Allentown makes a drink behind the counter at Black Forge Coffee House in Allentown on Monday, March 13, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Alex Malit, 24, of Allentown makes a drink behind the counter at Black Forge Coffee House in Allentown on Monday, March 13, 2017.
A sign hangs above a sink inside of Black Forge Coffee House in Allentown on Monday, March 13, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
A sign hangs above a sink inside of Black Forge Coffee House in Allentown on Monday, March 13, 2017.

Brooks Criswell says when he and his co-owners were starting their vegan food business, rather than finding a storefront, the storefront found them. The owner of the former Sweet Peaches catering company in Pittsburgh's Allentown ­neighborhood convinced them to take a look.

“We already knew the neighborhood because we had been doing pop-up brunches at Black Forge Coffee,” Criswell said. “We had just bought a food truck, but the space was so perfect for what we wanted to do.”

Onion Maiden opened March 10 after building a following at food festivals. The restaurant is the latest business to open in Allentown, which is trying to reinvent itself after years of economic neglect.

Bringing in restaurants and stores that appeal to young people is part of the plan.

“From the very first meeting with Siena (Kane), it wasn't like, ‘Prove to us you're ready for this,' but instead it was, ‘How can we make this happen?' ” said Criswell, who owns the business with Diana Ngo and Elyse Hoffman.

Kane is Allentown business district manager for Hilltop Alliance, a nonprofit that represents 11 communities in Pittsburgh's southern hilltop.

Kane was brought on in 2014 to connect property owners with businesses.

“People still have a negative perception of the neighborhood,” Kane said. Attracting unique businesses is a positive step, but “the next step is to make sure they can stay.”

Fourteen businesses in Allentown have taken advantage of a rent abatement program Hilltop offers — more than double the six the group expected, Kane said. Businesses can receive an abatement of up to $400 for a year if they sign a multiyear lease in Allentown's main business corridor. The program started in 2014 and will continue, Kane said, until Hilltop runs out of funding or Allentown runs out of storefronts.

“It helped people get thinking about the neighborhood, that was already affordable, to get them that little boost,” Kane said.

The rent abatement and the neighborhood's willingness to work with her were big reasons Michelle Lancet located her fabric maker shop Spool in Allentown last year.

“Some of the real estate agents in other booming neighborhoods told us, ‘You're not ready yet. We'll see you in three to five years,' ” Lancet said. “In Allentown, not only did we feel welcome, but the programs in place for new businesses had so much of what we needed.”

Lancet says she's mystified why more businesses aren't looking at Allentown. But for many Pittsburghers, the image of blighted properties and vacant storefronts is all they know of the neighborhood.

In July 2014, Allentown had a business vacancy rate of 40 percent, Kane said. As of November, it was 17 percent. In addition to Spool, Onion Maiden and Black Forge Coffee House, the business district includes Stuart Day Guitars, Leon's Caribbean restaurant, Paisano's pizza restaurant, Breakfast at Shelly's diner, the Work Hard co-working space and the Academy coding school. Day La Soul, which will offer fresh groceries, is expected to open soon.

Black Forge co-owner Ashley Corts moved to Allentown in 2008. When she and her business partner were looking for a place to start the business, they came across one of the buildings in Allentown owned by real estate development firm RE360. “We met with the Hilltop Alliance, and they told us everything we needed to do, helped us through the whole process,” Corts said.

“We had people that we didn't even know from the neighborhood helping us,” she said.

Kane acknowledges that drumming up foot traffic is a challenge. The neighborhood still is feeling the effects of the loss of the Brown Line, a light-rail service that Port Authority discontinued in 2011.

The Port Authority has no plans to bring back Brown Line service, spokesman Adam Brandolph said, but Kane is holding out hope.

“As we get more businesses in there, it could become a chicken-and-egg thing (Port Authority starts) to consider,” Kane said. “We're still having the conversation.”

Jonathan Vlasic bought Italian restaurant Alla Famiglia 12 years ago — the eatery had opened seven years earlier — and said the building and neighborhood were in bad shape. But he decided to stick it out and even bought a home in the neighborhood. “I want to be able to celebrate our 50th anniversary here,” he said.

Now Vlasic is planning a seven-figure expansion. He hopes to have it completed this year.

Between 2000 and 2010, Allentown lost 22 percent of its population, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Since 2012, the neighborhood has had six homicides. There is work to be done in reducing poverty and crime rates, but those who live and work in the neighborhood said a thriving business district is one way to begin the turnaround.

Tom Smith, of the Allentown Community Development Corp., said it's gratifying to see years of work addressing vacant residential and commercial spaces bear fruit. It began a decade ago, identifying micro-neighborhoods that could be addressed one at a time, and by going door to door to deal with property code violations.

“It's moving along nicely as far as the business district goes,” he said. “But we still have vacant lots in a business district. We'd really like to see those get filled up or used in some way.”

Kim Lyons is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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