Incubator Success Story: Bringing Up Uptown in Pittsburgh, PA

In our previous Incubator success story, we told you about Detroit, an often-maligned “Rust Belt” city undergoing some enormous sustainable regeneration efforts, thanks in part to the work of the 2014 Incubator Eco-D team. This week, we are taking you to Pittsburgh, another industrial city that is embracing sustainability as a way to revitalize its downtown communities.

Pittsburgh is undergoing an enormous transition. After a generation of economic decline following a collapse of heavy industry, the city is now benefitting from strategic investment and a resilient and progressive core of long-time residents, young talent and urban leaders who are championing sustainable growth in neighborhoods including the central Uptown district.

The Uptown neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA
The Uptown neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA

Uptown sits at the center of two of the most dynamic real estate markets in Pennsylvania. Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland are the second and third largest commercial centers behind only Center City, Philadelphia. The area is also home to two large universities, a major medical center and a professional sports venue.

However, like many neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, Uptown has seen levels of disinvestment and deterioration that are not befitting such a well-connected neighborhood. The population has dwindled to just over 800 residents. The resulting empty lots and buildings have created severe losses in property values. Because of the amount of abandoned lots, the most profitable land use has become surface parking. Less street activity has further fostered a perception of an unsafe environment. Industrial uses, though they provide jobs, have many blank walls and chain link fences that don’t create a welcoming urban experience. Although many transportation options exist, the street network isn’t pedestrian or bicycle friendly. Fast moving traffic and unbuffered sidewalks make walking and biking unpleasant and dangerous.

Uptown is a major transit corridor for more than 50,000 people per day.
Uptown is a major transit corridor for more than 50,000 people per day.

But as we’ve seen in many other communities that are home to academic institutions, like Cambridge, MA, Uptown is home to emerging innovation and creative clusters of activity, and its potential is attracting regional investors. In 2010, a group of local civic and government leaders began conversations about developing a bus rapid transit system (BRT) to run through the already transit-rich corridor, extending from Downtown Pittsburgh, Uptown and to Oakland, capturing the mobility needs of the community. They also acknowledge that the abandonment and demolition of the last several decades cannot be undone, but the vacant lots can be embraced as an opportunity to build a new Uptown that is sustainable, economically viable, and ecologically sensitive.

And that’s exactly the concept that the 2014 Pittsburgh team brought to last year’s Incubator. The team includes representatives from the City of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University- Remaking Cities Institute, Sustainable Pittsburgh, Uptown Partners of Pittsburgh, Oakland Planning and Development Corporation and the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

In addition to traditional economic development indicators, the Uptown team’s goals included economic and equity issues, such as opportunities for wealth building, affordability and economic diversity, and ecological aspirations for improved air quality, resource efficiency, and green space connectivity.

“Our main reasons for attending were to learn about the EcoDistricts process and explore how we could apply the process to the Uptown corridor,” said Grant Ervin, Sustainability Manager at the City of Pittsburgh and part of the Uptown team. “It was also a team building exercise to get members of the team all on the same page.”

And now, less than a year out? According to Ervin, “We are rocking and rolling!”

A community garden in Uptown
A community garden in Uptown

Coming back from the Incubator, the Uptown Eco Innovation District team followed the EcoDistricts Implementation Model and rocked their way through Phase 1 of planning – Formation. They formed a MOU between the City of Pittsburgh, the Port Authority of Allegheny County and the Redevelopment Authorities Authorities of Pittsburgh and Alleghany County to work collaboratively on community planning, the EcoDistricts process and the development of an evaluation of the area’s bus-rapid transit project.

Another major outcome of the Incubator has been the establishment of three stakeholder groups – a community-wide BRT stakeholders group, a district stakeholders group and a technical advisory group. Together, these groups represent all major institutions and organizations in the district and will form the governance structure of the district. The team has also successfully sorted out the allocation of funding for the development of community planning processes, which will happen concurrently.

“Now, we are looking to share what we learned with the community, and set up a framework for other potential districts,” said Ervin. “We are working on how we physically embody the governance structure, and figure out what a specific agreement looks like between all of the stakeholders.”

The Uptown team hard at work at the 2014 Incubator
The Uptown team hard at work at the 2014 Incubator

Something else to add to their growing success list: The Uptown EcoInnovation District just released a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for a team of consultants to officially jump start their planning, specifically based on the Four-Phase Implementation Model of the EcoDistricts Protocol. The desired result? A complete Uptown Eco Innovation District Plan to guide the district through its long-term sustainable regeneration goals. As the first district in the City to follow the EcoDistricts model, they team hopes the project will be seen as an “Urban Lab,” and be replicated in other neighborhoods.

“For our team, the most valuable things about the Incubator were to have the hands-on introduction to the EcoDistricts process, the ability for us to focus on the project in an off-campus setting, and learning from the visions and opportunities of other city teams.”