Talk about fascinating… One of the most successful community development corporations in the country once has a balance sheet of zero. What do you do to help an organization like that get its footing — and get some much-needed redevelopment going in a hard-hit neighborhood at the same time? Make them an investor in the project.
I interviewed Skip Schwab, Director of Operations for the East Liberty Redevelopment corporation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in mid-September. East Liberty was once the third-largest shopping district in the state (yes, state), but got hit with a massive dose of disinvestment and well-intended but incredibly destructive urban renewal in the 1960s. So this is the story of how a relatively small amount of well-placed redevelopment money and a commitment to meaningful public engagement around a plan set the stage for revitalization… and took years to play out.
The sound quality on this recording isn’t idea — finding a place in East Liberty that was relatively quiet on a hot early fall day turned out to be more of a challenge than either Skip or I planned. And there are some tapping noises occasionally that I can’t trace. Sometimes you gotta work with what ya got.
A couple of things to particularly look out for in this story:
- During his time at LISC, Skip set up the CDC for its long-term success by giving them a seat at the table during the redevelopment discussions–but not putting them in a position of having to manage it, a task that the organization at that time would have found impossible. When we work in a nonprofit setting, we sometimes assume that we have to be in charge in order to meet our mission, but I would propose that it’s better to be a savvy negotiator than a helpless and over-extended recipient. The revolving loan that has grown out of that first investment and intelligent follow-ups says volumes about the wisdom of that approach.
- The building that we discussed as being under construction at the time of the interview, and is literally across the street from the alcove bench that Skip and I were sitting on, was identified as the neighborhood’s top priority for redevelopment as early as 1999. Almost 15 years ago. Between then and now, at least four reputable, experienced developers tried to get the building rehabilitated… and failed. The market could not support a reasonable use for it yet. It is only now, over a decade into the area’s revitalization, that someone has been able to make the project work. I haven’t investigated the project in detail, and I won’t claim to know if there might have been some creative way to make something work in the intervening years. My suspicion is that if there had been a way, in this particular environment, with all the activity and pressure surrounding the building, someone would.
Most organizations would have flogged at that project because of its high priority and visibility, even as it clearly wasn’t working and as other, more achievable opportunities developed. Revitalization isn’t a game of perfection, and from a position of relative hindsight it appears that they made the right call in letting this one sit on a back burner until other factors, including other high-profile developments, enabled enough change in the market to make a rehabilitation possible. But….imagine the organizational guts required to keep it on that back burner, to fight the urge and the political pressure to try to force it to happen. Imagine the tough questions, the snarky comments in the press. And imagine the potential self-doubt among organization leaders. That’s bravery, that’s grit.
- Notice the importance that Skip places on the fact that the neighborhood had a plan — not the importance he places on it today as a staff member, but the importance he placed on the plan back then when he was the funder. When he was trying to decide the reasonableness of an investment in a neighborhood with an urban renewal mess — and more importantly, a mess of an organization — the existence of the plan made the difference between funding and not funding. And note that the plan he cites as making that difference wasn’t the urban design plan, with its pretty pictures and lovely renderings of some perfect future state. At least in this interview, Skip doesn’t give that much attention. His decision to pull the trigger, to make the investment in one of dozens of neighborhoods that were probably crying out for help at the same time, was driven by a community plan — by a document that demonstrated where the people of the neighborhood stood, what their priorities were, what problems they perceived and how willing they were to support change. It was that plan, not the one with the pictures, that gave him as a funder the confidence that this was an investment with potential.
So again, please forgive the sound goofiness, and enjoy. I had a blast with this interview, and I’d encourage you to check out http://www.eastliberty.org/. You can also find an interesting article on the district’s urban renewal legacy at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303612804577533112214213358.html.
And of course, you can read about or listen to my interview with East End resident Rebecca Maclean of Food Me Once, Digging Deep and Salt Pig Chicken Something fame as we talk urban revitalization, entrepreneurship and hot dogs in East Liberty.