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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Shelter for the Storm? Bill Peduto to the rescue!

Posted By on Thu, Sep 5, 2013 at 12:55 PM

News that Penn Avenue coffeehouse Quiet Storm will likely close this October has rocked devotees of the beloved gathering place. But take heart: City Councilor -- and presumptive future mayor -- Bill Peduto hopes to offer shelter for the Storm. And in doing so, he may establish a template for his administration's approach to urban development.

Peduto, who learned about the Quiet Storm's closure after we posted our story, put out a call on Twitter to help find the restaurant a new home.

The café "has become a community center," Peduto tells City Paper. "And to so many people in Pittsburgh, it's an institution. I used to take my nieces there, because it was the hip place Old Uncle Bill could take them. Now they're older, and they go there themselves. It's the Ritter's of a new generation."

Peduto says that in the past 24 hours, he's heard a number of suggested new locations: "I think there are some really hot leads and some cold leads as well," he says. Particularly fertile ground may be in Allentown's potentially up-and-coming Warrington Avenue district, or along Beechview's Broadway Avenue, which has been undergoing a bit of a food-driven renaissance of its own.

Peduto says that neighborhood leaders have been among those expressing interest in the Quiet Storm's future. "Any neighborhood would benefit from having the Quiet Storm there," he says. "Any place that was where Penn Avenue was 15 years ago needs to have some sort of anchor like that."

It's worth nothing that Peduto hasn't actually spoken with Quiet Storm owner Jill MacDowell about these plans; he says he plans to do so soon, but that "I'm just trying to get something to bring to her first." (MacDowell has said she's exploring options, and has been using social media to do so; the Quiet Storm Facebook page has raised the possibility of launching a food truck, while circulating responses to Peduto's Twitter query.)

But helping MacDowell take that next step -- wherever it leads -- is just one facet of a larger challenge, Peduto says.

Both the Quiet Storm and the Shadow Lounge -- another Penn Avenue gathering place that shut down even as the surrounding neighborhood began booming-- lie within Peduto's council district. (Shadow Lounge owner Justin Strong has, in fact, been a longtime ally.) And Peduto has often touted the East End's resurgence as a model for what he hopes to do citywide. So the fate of such institutions gets to the heart of his vision for Pittsburgh.

To some extent, Peduto says, such changes are inevitable: "There are cycles to cities, and there will always be people who locate their business or their home in those 'places on the edge.' They'll always be the pioneers of revitalization, and once that starts to take hold, they'll start looking for the next area. If they only stayed in one place, then other neighborhoods would never come back."

But, he adds, "What you don't want to see is people's own success be the thing that forces them out. And that is happening."

The solution, he says, is simple -- if not always easy. "If you want to end that cycle, you have to own your own property. Ideally, that's what I'd like to see for the Quiet Storm -- finding not just a location, but a home ... The definition of gentrification isn't new buildings going up; it's when people are displaced. And the way to prevent that is to facilitate ownership."

Peduto, having won the Democratic mayoral primary this past spring, is very likely to become the city's next mayor. And the Quiet Storm could be a test case for how he -- and the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority -- will pursue development in the city. After all, if the rest of the city does share in the East End's success, other beloved local merchants may face gentrification pressure as well. What can government do?

"We have a ton of property owned by the URA," Peduto says -- including, for example, parcels along Beechview's business district. "A lot of the URA's role in the past has been waiting for developers to come in with a national big-box retailer like Walgreen's. I think we have a lot of potential to partner directly with local entrepreneurs," creating a more home-grown approach to development.

Will a solution for Quiet Storm have to await Peduto's swearing-in ceremony? Not necessarily. "I am still a member of city council, and I do have some influence," Peduto says. While he hasn't spoken with the URA about the Quiet Storm yet -- "This all came up yesterday afternoon" -- he says he has been meeting with agency officials on a weekly basis.

Given the fact that he's not yet been elected, Peduto says, "There's a delicate line here; I'm not presuming anything. But I don't want to let anything fall through the cracks either."

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