“We’re trying to brand it as a small business maker corridor.”
Editor’s Note: As part of a regular business feature in the Pittsburgh Current, we’re planning to highlight business districts across the Pittsburgh area. Few neighborhoods have dealt with a more chaotic set of circumstances than Beechview, which is where the Current’s new office is located. So we thought we’d kick off the feature close to home.
In addition to longtime businesses like The Huddle and Las Palmas IGA grocer y store, new companies have begun sprouting along Broadway Avenue in Beechview over the past year. It’s been a long row to hoe for Beechview’s business district. But with formerly title-clouded properties now available for sale and being renovated, the city’s only neighborhood with working light rail has finally turned a corner. And yes, to the glee of many residents and business owners, it will soon be getting a new coffee shop.
“We see thousands of people going by our window every day,” says Mike Sorg, of Sorgatron Media. His podcast and video production studio is housed in a building at 1619 Broadway. “The businesses in this neighborhood can draw people’s eyes up from their phones. Now we have to figure out what gets them off the train.”
Sorg and his wife Missy have been longtime residents of Beechview, and used to host their daily podcast from their basement before moving to the storefront on Broadway. Missy Sorg says there’s some cohesion among the businesses, which in addition to Sorgatron include Tolin FX, a special effects studio, and Cut ‘N Run, a video production studio.
People in Beechview are sick of talking about it, so we’ll get the Bernardo Katz bit out of the way because it’s really the backstory of Broadway Avenue. The developer bought a slew of properties along Broadway Avenue and got a $750,000 loan from the Urban Redevelopment Authority. Then, he fled to Brazil in 2007. He was indicted on conspiracy and fraud charges and accused of defrauding several local banks out of $20 million. The properties were tied up in legal entanglements for several years before the city finally extricated them and were able to offer them for sale beginning in 2015.
As part of the Broadway Avenue Public Realm Project (BAPR),Broadway Avenue is now in the design phase for construction based on the 2011 SMART TRID study. The overhaul will include ADA-accessible transit stops, infrastructure improvements and beautification efforts.
But the long process that the community suffered through made many in Beechview wary of any other developers. Daniel Berkovitz of Atlas Development is mindful of this wariness even as he pushes ahead with development efforts in Katz’s wake. Among the former Katz properties Atlas purchased was 1600 Broadway, which has been renovated into apartments. The long-awaited senior center at 1555 Broadway finally has come to fruition as well.
Berkowitz said he’s taken time to get to know Beechview and its residents, which is why he thinks things are moving along so well now.
“Any time anyone gives me a statistic based on the city of Pittsburgh I think they’re a liar,” Berkowitz says. He says to look at the East End and think that what’s happening there tells the entire Pittsburgh story is false. “We are a loose confederation of 90 principalities. Each neighborhood is demographically different and statistically different and if you don’t understand that you completely misread what’s going on in Pittsburgh.”
He says he chose Beechview after studying census data that showed the neighborhood had a rapidly changing demographic of younger people, and was safe and affordable. Along with the beginnings of development in the neighborhood, Berkowitz said, Beechview was an ideal choice. “As a developer you can make things happen a little faster, and help the community achieve what it wants to be.”
In addition to Sorgatron moving in along Broadway, La Catrina Mexican restaurant and the renovated senior center at 1555 Broadway have given the street a new look. Berkowitz added that the Hispanic Development corp is working on opening a business incubator for Latino businesses on the second floor of the senior center. Beechview has the city’s highest concentration of Latino residents.
Atlas’ plan has been to seek out businesses that don’t rely too heavily on foot traffic, but that will attract attention just by virtue of having the lights on. “It starts to change the whole perception of the neighborhood,” Berkowitz says. “We’re trying to brand it as a small business maker corridor.”
He’s mindful of the perception that development always equals gentrification, Berkowitz added. “When the barista and the coffee shop owner can’t live together in the same neighborhood it’s not a vibrant neighborhood,” he said. “In the short term you might have development, but in the long term the next time a neighborhood is shiny and new, people are going to move there. There’s no stickiness. Neighborhoods need souls.”
Pittsburgh City councilor Anthony Coghill has lived in Beechview his entire life. “When I was a kid it was hustling and bustling, we had a movie theater and ice cream shops,” he says. While the neighborhood is moving forward, he cautions that it’s not quite back to its heyday yet. “We’re not ready for businesses that are counting on foot traffic just yet,” he says. “All these dumpsters you see along Broadway are a beautiful thing, though, because you know people are moving in.”
The senior center building also will again house a coffee shop soon, Coghill adds: Muddy Cup, which has locations in Dormont and Bellevue, has signed a lease to open in the former Brew on Broadway space in October.
But there are still stumbling blocks to deal with in reimaging Beechview’s business district; some of the buildings along Broadway are not structurally sound enough to sell to a developer yet, Coghill says.
And making Broadway safer is a high priority too, says Moira Kaleida, Coghill’s chief of staff, with the slip lanes along the T track among the areas to be addressed as part of the BAPR work. She says keeping developers like Berkowitz accountable to the community is also a priority.
Coghill adds that he likes the unique personality of Broadway’s business district, which is sort of divided into clumps, with Slice on Broadway at one end and the Fallowfield Station at the other, with some residential in between the businesses.
“I think people’s eyes are open to Beechview now, because you can purchase a property on Broadway and open a business,” he said. “I think when people see what’s happening, it’s going to draw more and more interest.”
Disclosure: The author runs a podcast produced at Sorgatron Media.
Kim Lyons is the Pittsburgh Current Editor-at-Large. Contact her at email@example.com