Proponents of long-planned Penn Avenue improvements believe the mayor can be convinced again to fund the project, even though his administration recently stopped the effort by shifting money away.
Six years in the making, plans for the major repair of streets, sidewalks and sewers along the crumbling Lawrenceville-to-East Liberty section of the corridor are now in doubt. Proponents of the upgrade still contend it'll happen ... the mayor just needs to support a project he once pushed as a city councilor. But their current frustration stems from years of painstakingly drawing together federal funding sources, which will reimburse the city 80 percent of the project's costs. They can't just pour the federal portion of the money into a partial project, since it won't be available without the city's pledge to fund 20 percent of the total effort.
"They have not said no. It is not dead," says Aggie Brose, deputy director of the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation, a local community development organization that's been instrumental in bringing the project close.
But the city hasn't exactly said yes, either.
The redevelopment plan includes updating water lines ... some of which are more than a century old ... and resurfacing the disintegrating street and sidewalk. It calls for the city to pay for 20 percent of the $15 million cost. The rest would be federal money, which Penn Avenue boosters helped attract in the first place. The first phase, a $1.6 million site investigation, was slated to begin in March, but some of those funds were shifted to other city agencies. During a recent meeting between the mayor and the BGC, the project was put on hold indefinitely, awaiting approval from the mayor and PennDOT.
Brose says O'Connor told meeting participants that he wanted to hear personally from business owners on the avenue about the need for the project. The BGC has set a meeting with the mayor for June 12.
At press time, mayoral spokesman Dick Skrinjar had not returned a half-dozen calls seeking comment.
Over the past six years, the BGC has been instrumental in securing city council's approval for the project, determining what most needed improvement and securing federal matching funds, as well as soliciting input from other community groups, business owners and residents.
Brose and others involved in Penn Avenue development say the city is also claiming that construction will disturb corridor businesses so much that business owners won't want the project to go forth.
Jeffrey Dorsey, arts district manager for the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative, says giving business owners a chance to gripe about traffic snarls may just be the O'Connor administration's delaying tactic. "We feel like he's using that; it's buying him time," Dorsey says. If enough business owners object to the construction headaches, "it seals the deal in his mind" that the project should be scuttled.
"It sounds to me like he's trying to avoid mud in the face from the question of 'why do [Penn Avenue groups] get all the money?'" says Tara Merenda, renovation information network coordinator for the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh. "We've been working for six years. It's a big deal."
She and others hoping for the Penn Avenue improvements acknowledge that the city's financial picture is less than spectacular, and that other neighborhoods could use an infusion of cash, too. But they point to how far the project has come in the past half-dozen years.
"I would never say it's now or never, but if not now, when?" asks Merenda. "We did it right, we followed the rules."
"At the end of the day, we feel that we're going to be a priority," concludes Brose.
Both Merenda and Dorsey wonder if the mayor's sudden foot-dragging has anything to do with legacy- and image-building. Repaving lacks the flash of new stadiums, and Downtown redevelopment efforts have been heating up. But with O'Connor cheerleading for Downtown living, Dorsey says, Penn Avenue ought to be a top priority. Penn connects Downtown to the burgeoning arts scene, and is home to over 100 businesses as well as new undertakings like Children's Hospital, the Children's Home and new senior housing units.
Some business owners contacted by CP say they do worry about having access to their shops compromised, and others aren't worried.
Hillary Carrozza, president of 55-year Penn Avenue anchor Babyland, says she'll be at the June 12 meeting with the mayor, speaking in favor of the project. "Hopefully we can persuade [O'Connor] not to take the money and put it somewhere else," she says. "Any redevelopment is going to help."
"People are concerned that when they close the street, you can't get in and out," says My Le, whose family owns T&K Grocery on Penn Avenue. "This is a main artery to Wilkinsburg and Penn Circle. If you block it, it's going to cause more traffic." But, she says, she's willing to put up with it in the name of improvements. "You can see, it's really bad. I'd like to see new sidewalks." As she speaks, a customer entering the store knocks over a fan just outside the doorway on the mangled sidewalk.
Construction "won't disrupt my business much," says Jerry Kraynick, owner of Kraynick's Bike Shop Inc., a Penn Avenue stalwart for 30 years. Many of his customers arrive by bike. He says that if the improvements come, it'll increase property values and keep the area's momentum going. That, he speculates, means the city will have to fix things sooner or later. But businesses like his and Babyland, which have survived the lean times, will keep hanging on with or without improvements.
"This'll never be Walnut Street," he says. "That's OK."