URA chief at chamber breakfast

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When African American Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Doris Carson Williams asked her Power Breakfast audience how many had done business with Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, nearly all raised their hands.

So when she introduced URA Executive Director Rob Stephany she told him to relax because he’d be preaching to the choir.

“He’s probably the most engaging director we’ve had,” she said. “We see him out in the community, and he’s been a big supporter of the August Wilson Center.”

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SEEING WHAT DEVELOPS—Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Rob Stephany discusses new development strategies with members of the African American Chamber of Commerce as chamber president and CEO Doris Carson Williams looks on.

Stephany gave a brief history of the URA and its revitalization projects over the years and a summary of his own development history with Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. and East Liberty Development Inc. before Mayor Luke Ravenstahl tapped him to lead the authority.

While he cited URA successes such as the developments in Washington’s Landing, Frick Park and South Side Works, not all have had the desired spill-over effect of raising property values in adjacent neighborhoods.

“The property values on Washington’s Landing have increased substantially, but there has been no economic spillover into Troy Hill,” he said. “At Frick Park, next to Squirrel Hill, we’ve seen spill over along the one road that accesses the project, and all around the South Side Works, we’ve seen off-site appreciation of up to 225 percent.”

Stephany also pointed to Penn Avenue in Garfield as an example, noting that on one side there are $200,000 properties, while across the street are $16,000 properties.

“And it’s like that all the way to Wilkinsburg,” he said.

Though Stephany said the authority is known for its success in reviving former industrial sites like South Side Works and Frick Park, it is also known for white elephants like the Lazarus and Lord & Taylor stores. He said the authority is now looking at a smaller scale and more directed strategy to improve and stabilize neighborhoods.

“We’re now investing in ‘the edge,’ where stability meets instability,” he said. “All the neighborhoods we’ve invested in have improved, except the distressed neighborhoods—they’ve gotten worse. We have substantial investments in these neighborhoods, which raises the question: are they mis-investments?”

Stephany said the authority is moving from a “big bang, utopialand” strategy to a smaller-scale strategy.

“But ‘Main Street’ (retail) is still hard to do,” he said. “One bad Saturday can determine whether the rent gets paid or not. But it’s become clear that we need market-driven strategies instead of community development corporation-driven strategies.”

As if on cue, one audience member noted that on Wood Street, Downtown, small, unsubsidized businesses are popping up to take advantage of the increased retail demand created by the Point Park University expansion and the Piatt Place and Market Square redevelopment. So, there is some spillover from those large projects.

One point Stephany did not bring up was the future of the 28-acre site where the Mellon Arena now sits. But when asked, he said care should be taken, lest other initiatives get lost in shuffle.

“We could waste 25 years fighting about the 28 acres. Everyone assumes the pretty pictures they saw five years ago is a done deal, but they’re just pretty pictures, and there’s still a historic preservation fight coming,” he said. “ I’m more interested in the Hill, but if we’re not careful, a lot of energy and money could go into a 28-acre black hole and nothing will get done in the Hill.”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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