As Mayor Bill Peduto stepped out the back door of his official car into the rain in Uptown last evening, people from the community queued in front of a local Middle Eastern food truck turned and gathered around him.
Peduto’s arrival signaled the beginning of a community meeting billed as a chance for residents of Uptown and West Oakland to discuss the final stages of development for the City’s EcoInnovation District project. Begun in 2015 as the first project of its kind for Pittsburgh, last night’s meeting had an air of triumph for the city employees gathered, who almost outnumbered the community members.
“Remember how vividly we dreamed of this when we first began?” Peduto asked the assembled group once inside out of the rain with several large diagrams and illustrations of planned developments to the area standing as tall as the ceiling behind him.
The EcoInnovation District, a revitalization project specifically directed at the neighborhoods of West Oakland and Uptown, initially aimed to improve the district with input from both interested private development parties and from community members. Peduto stressed that the project aimed to better economic conditions in the area, improve environmental sustainability and ensure that current residents were not left behind as the neighborhoods moved forward.
“If we see this area change, we want to see it change with you still here,” Peduto said. “This is your plan — you put it together.”
Peduto said he was committed to making the planned Bus Rapid Transit system work for the area, as well as his hopes for an economic and cultural revival of the two neighborhoods. Among other things, the EcoInnovation District plan will work to upgrade local infrastructure and improve motor vehicle and pedestrian safety on Fifth and Forbes Avenues and the Boulevard of the Allies.
“When the Boulevard of the Allies was first designed, it was designed to be a grand boulevard,” he said of one of the area’s three main arteries of traffic. “It was a front door for these neighborhoods.”
After Peduto finished speaking, several leaders from groups in the community and around the city involved in the EcoInnovation District revitalization discussed their goals for the implementation of the project.
Jeanne McNutt, executive director of the Uptown Partners of Pittsburgh — a self-described community organization dedicated to green neighborhood development — underscored the vital role played by community members up to that point in the planning process.
“It even took members of our board several months to figure out what we were doing,” McNutt said. “When things had to be understood on a smaller scale, we had meetings in people’s backyards.”
She went on to discuss some of her group’s more specific goals for the implementation of the EcoInnovation District project, including reintroducing public meeting spaces decorated with “quirky penguins” to the neighborhood to improve the area’s sociability and culture.
This effort is part of a larger push to “reactivate” the community, which community members will also accomplish by reclaiming vacant properties.
Pitt, UPMC and Duquesne were also represented at the meeting, with each expressing strong support for the project and promising extensive involvement. Tad Hale, a member of the University of Pittsburgh Innovation Institute and head of startup group StartUptown, detailed his interest in giving local businesses a front and center seat as the revitalization plan begins to take effect.
“We want to connect local youth to the innovation economy,” Hale said.
Officials from the Department of City Planning directed the restless members of the crowd who still had questions to the EcoInnovation District’s website. According to the officials, residents of Uptown and West Oakland have 30 more days from yesterday to submit any final comments or suggestions before the plan begins to be put into action. The last day residents will be able to submit comments and concerns to the project website is Friday, August 11.
But Peduto and the other speakers appeared united in their confidence that the planning process as it had been conducted over the past two years had given enough consideration to locals’ interests that there would be little difficulty moving forward with implementation. The mayor described the system of planning as a significant success for both Pittsburgh at large and for West Oakland and Uptown.
“You have given us a model to take to other neighborhoods,” Peduto concluded.
Ken Gormley, president of Duquesne University, agreed with Peduto on this point.
“It is not the people at the top […] who make this country run,” Gormley told the assembled city employees and community members. “You are the people who make this country run.”