After seven and a half years as director of the Brightwood Civic Group, Ed Brandt stepped down at the end of August. His announcement brings to an end a successful tenure in which the community saw a spate of achievements.
Though members of the BCG and other Northside community leaders are sad to see him leave his leadership position, they all said they were thankful for his many years of service to Brightwood and the larger Northside.
BCG member Theresa Radwon highlighted Brandt’s leadership with the Washburn Square project just a stone’s throw from where she lives, wherein six to eight dilapidated apartment buildings were torn down with the goal of building new single-family units.
“They were bringing down the rest of the neighborhood,” said Brandt, hinting that the owner wasn’t screening tenants, which resulted in rampant drug activity. The project had been bandied about by BCG members for a few years, before Brandt came on as Director in 2002.
Brandt lobbied the URA for funding to demolish the buildings with the intent to build 17 single family units on the centrally-located block. After a new city study last year found that 17 houses might not sell quickly in Brightwood’s market, Brandt altered course immediately and helped craft a plan to set aside community space on the one acre lot.
“There will be three new houses built, and the leftover two thirds of an acre will be a park,” Brandt said.
Former Councilwoman Barbara Burns, who has known and worked with Brandt for years, said one of Brandt’s strong points was engagement.
`“He took the time to make sure that there was common time to share information and talk through issues. For Brightwood, I think he has made all the difference.”
Brandt’s proclivity for engagement was on full display when he organized a block watch for Woodland Avenue three years ago. A stretch of blocks along Woodland Avenue was home to a number of units owned by “absentee landlords” as well as the Homeplate Bar.
The 15 to 40 residents that showed up at meetings would report any problematic actions they observed among the bar’s raucous patrons. Brandt headed the block watch for a year, teaching the members how to report these actions to both the police and the Liquor Control Board. Their actions culminated in New Hope Church buying the property through its community development arm and converting it into The Café & Creamery, a coffee and gelato shop.
The block watch is still together and now participates in neighborhood cleanups.
Brandt has also found funding to plant over 100 trees in just the last two years, get security cameras installed at the challenging corner of Woodland and Shadeland Avenues and have the city install pedestrian walk signs at the hazardous intersection of Woods Run Avenue and Brighton Road.
More recently, Brandt established the Woodland Avenue Stabilization Committee. The committee has partnered with the Northside Leadership Conference to buy the properties of absentee landlords with the goal of fixing them up to sell to new home owners.
Because of Brandt’s sedulous lobbying of city officials, some of these houses, and those being built in Washburn Square, will be eligible for a 10-year tax abatement for new owners of both new and substantially-rehabilitated homes.
When the mayor proposed that particular neighborhoods with weak housing markets should receive these tax abatements to promote development, Brightwood was not included on the original list. So Brandt demonstrated to city officials that Brightwood’s housing market needed the stimulus, and the mayor’s office later agreed to add the neighborhood. Brandt even helped East Deutschtown and Perry Hilltop qualify for the tax abatement.
A rumor has emerged that Brandt’s effort to include these neighborhoods resulted in the BCG’s budget being cut by 40 percent last year. The BCG receives operating revenue through the city. Some locals even ventured to guess that this is the reason for Brandt’s departure.
But Brandt is adamant in dismissing this guessing game and said that the BCG’s budget has absolutely nothing to do with his tax abatement lobbying.
“Money is always an issue, but that’s not what’s causing me to make a change,” Brandt said. “I’ve been here seven and a half years, and I’m just interested in doing other things.”
Diane Annis-Dixon, president of BCG’s board, also said there is no link between funding and any personal vendetta. “I think the funding was more of other communities having different ties with the elected officials.”
Dixon is charged with hiring Brandt’s replacement. She said because funding might remain at $15,000 this year, she is looking into hiring someone on a part-time basis rather than full-time, like Brandt. Ed Lewis, who is currently working for Fineview Citizens Council part-time, is one option, she said. There is a possibility he could split his time between the two neighborhoods.
Dixon said she won’t hire anyone until the BCG learns how much funding it will receive next year, which will probably be sometime in September.
“We could never replace Ed, for what we paid him and for the work that he did,” Dixon said. “The only thing that makes me feel comfortable is that I know he’s not leaving Pittsburgh. I have his phone number, and I know where he lives.”