Social Corners: Proposing Phased Strategies for an Urban EcoDistrict

In collaboration with Rebecca Lefkowitz 
My first experience with EcoDistricts was through my first studio project (while studying urban design at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Architecture) where we were introduced to the Millvale EcoDistrict, situated just outside the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 2012, the Borough of Millvale teamed up with evolveEA, an architecture, and sustainability firm, to begin the implementation of the EcoDistricts Protocol. In its first phase, Millvale chose to focus on three areas – energy, food, and water – in order to combat the ever-present energy crisis and its financial burden, to solve the food desert condition of Millvale, and to mitigate the problem of flooding. Three years later, the community expanded these goals to include air quality,
transportation, and equity. The Millvale Ecodistrict Pivot Plan marks an important change of attitude in Millvale, outlining both the historic and existing issues the Borough has faced, while also recording the residents’ vision for its future. Having this written record of Millvale’s goals is crucial in shaping the development of the community, resulting in investments and real projects that solve real problems.
(Fig. 1: Aerial View of Millvale, obstructed from the Allegheny River by several lanes of the highway and 2 rail lines. Furthermore, with its location at the crux of 3 hills, it is susceptible to major flooding issues during rainy periods. Source: Google Earth.)
With each trip to Millvale and our research on the history of the borough, we noticed the variety and quality of storefronts that line both North Avenue and Grant Avenue. North Avenue has retained the character of a classic post-industrial American commercial corridor, lined with specialty shops like Esther’s Hobby Shop, Lincoln Pharmacy, Jean-Marc Chatellier’s French Bakery, Tazza d’Oro, & more; as a result, the image of North Avenue is perhaps the most recognizable as Millvale.
But this quality of locally-owned specialty shops fades as you traverse southeast on Grant Avenue; for some reason, the main entrance to Millvale off of Route 28 is devoid of the identity central to Millvale’s image. The EcoDistrict Plan emphasized this lack of a strong entrance as well, planning for this site to be another commercial anchor for the town. We heard from many Millvalians a desire for Millvale to be known regionally as a “foodie” haven: a destination where tourists could travel to sample a diverse range of artisanal fare. Using food and other “destination retail” like Pamela’s Diner, Attic Records, and Yetter’s Candy is a powerful way to reframe Millvale’s image as an innovative town while simultaneously opening up new opportunities for investment.
(Fig. 2: A digital collage depicting the long, arduous, and potentially dangerous path residents and visitors to Millvale must take to get to the Allegheny River. Produced by Rebecca Lefkowitz)
Primarily focusing on reviving the commercial culture in Millvale to form an iconic identity at its gateway, we imagined that the collection of diverse local businesses of Millvale’s heyday be
reintegrated into the fabric of the town. We proposed a series of strategically-placed low-cost, short-term events to discover the demand for commercial & recreational amenities that incrementally grow interested & incentivize long-term investment. This drives an image of a historic Millvale while looking to its future with a unique, innovative, active community.
Our proposal focuses on building intrigue surrounding these ideas of food and destination retail using incremental, small-scale interventions to drive interest in long-term investment. At its final stage, this proposal adds 7 food retailers, 6 diverse retailers, 3 new public park amenities, 10 conventional housing units, and 10 co-housing units.

(Fig. 3: Aerial visualization of Millvale with proposed naturalized creek edge, co-housing units, and various retailers. Produced by Sai Narayan and Rebecca Lefkowitz)
Our studio had the opportunity to work with the creators of The Neighborhood Playbook, a book meant to educate both developers and communities in establishing new development models that put residents first, a mentality that is mutually beneficial. All too often, in the conventional development model, early entrepreneurs who invest in economically-depressed areas carry much more risk when first investing in the place, forcing these developers to reduce their risk in other ways. In towns like Millvale, this usually manifests as a national chain restaurant or retail occupying a relatively valuable location in the town, while not truly making that place any better, on the scale of the local economy or social fabric.
The Neighborhood Playbook, however, advocates for a people-first development model based on community engagement at all stages of the design and development process. We saw the success of this model first-hand while visiting the book’s creators, Kevin Wright and Joe Nickol, in Cincinnati, Ohio, where they’ve tested and refined this method over the last decade. This
approach of small-scale interventions that lead to long-term investment builds in demand from the start, rather than relying on a supply to beget the demand later. This minimizes the risk to early entrepreneurs, incentivizing even more investment in the town. But most importantly, this new model for development puts the needs and wants of the community first. So, in this vein, we revised our original project prompt as not simply envisioning the long-term proposal, but also organizing phasing strategies in order to actually achieve these goals. The above phasing strategy is designed to eventually build a new headquarters for an existing local non-profit organization at a highly-visible corner near the entrance to Millvale.
(Fig. 4: An animated axon indicating phased growth and development – small interventions to develop public interest and bring investment to the area. Produced by Sai Narayan.)
Community engagement played a crucial role in the success of this project. In the first weeks of our urban design studio, we set up a booth at the annual Millvale Days Parade, asking Millvalians to talk about their favorite spots in town and the places they thought could use improvement. This narrowed down our project scope to primarily focusing on access to the riverfront, which is hidden and made dangerous by a confusing tangle of roads, highway overpasses, railways, and more.
Each of our presentations was given to groups of community members who were both interested in the project as well as major stakeholders (including the Mayor of Millvale) we identified throughout the semester. Feedback from The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), knowledgeable locals, and borough leaders was invaluable to the
design process. For example, one huge design move given to the studio was to demolish an entire block and start fresh; however, after meeting with locals, we discovered that this demolition would destroy a community anchor, Grant Bar, so we decided to adjust our schemes drastically to accommodate this iconic building.
The research portion of this project – that developed after the duration of the studio – focusing on short-term strategies were produced in further detail with deeper collaborative efforts with Millvale residents through stakeholder interviews, meetings with the Borough, and consultations with traffic engineers from PennDOT. These various methods of engagement allowed us to produce a menu of strategies that could quickly and fairly cheaply improve the pedestrian and bicycle crossing between the town and the riverfront. Interactive renderings allowed the community to mix and match these strategies.
(Fig. 5: A digital perspective envisioning what the entrance to Millvale could look like from low development but high impact interventions could look like, such as murals, street trees, and highlighted crosswalks.)
Also from the EcoDistrict Plan came the below image, showing a future vision of Millvale. In our attempt to continue the goals outlined here, we borrowed some of these suggested programs and, with each project, site them closer to the “gateway of Millvale,” a site selected by evolveEA to serve as a primary commercial center at the entrance to the town, as well as the connection to the Allegheny riverfront. The development of these sites, in alignment with the EcoDistrict Plan, will hopefully rejuvenate Millvale.

(Fig.6: An aerial axonometric of Millvale from the Millvale Ecodistrict Protocol, indicating various strategies being implemented across Millvale, classified into various categories. Produced by EvolveEA. Produced by Sai Narayan and Rebecca Lefkowitz.)
With intensive research into the ecological, social, and economic structures that construct the town, careful examination of the goals outlined in the EcoDistrict Plan, experimentation with the new model of development advocated in The Neighborhood Playbook, and active engagement with consultants, local stakeholders, and community members, our design teams worked for the semester to deliver this report of our final recommendations for the revitalization of Millvale, particularly at its gateway. Our final recommendations for the future revitalization of Millvale’s EcoDistrict Plan hopefully reflects the aspirations of Millvale, prescribing a means for their vision to become a reality.

(Fig. 7: A Digital rendering of what the envisioned entrance to the borough of Millvale could look
like. Produced by Rebecca Lefkowitz.)

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