The Garden Theater Block awaits redevelopment at the hands of Zukin Development and Collaborative Ventures.  Zukin was chosen to work on the block earlier this year. (Photo/Kelly Thomas)

In a year when headlines focused on the national economic crisis, Northside communities persevered to bring resolution to long-awaited improvement projects and reshape the images of their neighborhoods.

Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference for the past four years, described 2010 as a significant year.

“It’s like an iceberg. Nobody sees the previous three years of planning and building and raising the funds and the financing and encouraging entrepreneurs. I think we’re starting to see the tangible results of that strategic focus in the last year,” he said.

The goal of the Conference and the community groups of which it is comprised has been to stimulate economic growth on the Northside and to encourage private investment. Looking at some of the major developments over the past year, it is no surprise results are showing.

Bringing homeowners to the Northside

No fewer than three neighborhoods celebrated ground breakings or ribbon cuttings for new housing developments that will hopefully bring individuals and families to the Northside in years to come.

With the 15-years-in-the-making Washburn Square Project, the Brightwood Civic Group transformed a housing complex into three single-family homes and a park. Located between Superior Avenue and Hodgkiss Street, two of the three units were sold before construction finished and the third sold shortly after.

Manchester Citizens Corporation made inroads on its goal of having every house in Manchester occupied through the ongoing Renaissance Housing Program and the beginning of the Columbus Square development, which features 31 new homes to be built on a former brownfield.

The Renaissance Housing Program began in 2009 and continued through 2010 with the renovation of seven vacant historic homes, all of which were pre-sold.

Improvements on Federal Street and North Avenue

The Central Northside Neighborhood Council has worked to improve its key business corridor: Federal Street and North Avenue.

2010 saw the selection of a developer for the Garden Theater Block, a huge milestone for the blighted area. Officials said construction will begin in about a year, and the developer, Zukin Development and Collaborative Ventures, is currently seeking financing and tenants for the soon-to-be renovated buildings.

Another milestone is the Federal Hill housing development, begun in 2006. The first phase of 23 new homes, all of which have been sold, was completed this year and construction on phase two, with 40 homes, will start in 2011.

Streetscape renovations

As part of ongoing efforts to improve the appearance of the Northside’s “gateways,” a few community organizations spearheaded initiatives to improve key business districts, which came to fruition this year.

On East Ohio Street, several businesses got new signage to improve the looks of their storefronts thanks to the URA Façade Improvement Project. JR’s bar relocated further down the street, away from the visible corner of East Ohio Street and Cedar Avenue as well as further from East Park.

The Gateway Project, lead by the Leadership Conference, has also begun renovations of three historic buildings on the street, including the former North Side Christian Health Center building in the 600 blocks of East Ohio.

Another well-know Northside business district, Western Avenue, underwent $1.7 million worth of improvements between October 2009 and early 2010. The $1.7 million project includes new sidewalks and curbs, improved lighting and the planting of trees along the sidewalks.

The Conference managed the reconstruction but the rest of the project was undertaken by the Allegheny West Civic Council and volunteer groups.

Fatla said he has noticed property owners on Western Avenue reinvesting in their buildings and believes the revitalized improvement efforts to be a result of the overall renovation of the area.

Three railroad underpasses at key Northside entry points also saw some long-awaited renovation. The underpasses at Anderson, Sandusky and Federal streets, once dripping and ugly, have been repainted and repaired to make them more inviting for pedestrians traveling between the North Shore and Deutschtown.

The Recovery of Penn Brewery

With the potential to bring 30,000 visitors each year, solidifying the future of the Penn Brewery in the Northside was a big win for the area in early 2010.

After brewing operations were moved off-site and the restaurant closed in 2009, a group of investors led by founder Tom Pastorius stepped in to restore the historic brewery, with help from the Leadership Conference and the Northside Community Development Fund.

Penn Brewery Business Manager Sandy Cindrich said she was thankful for the overwhelming support of the community and local businesses, and the Brewery is once again a neighborhood landmark.

Matthew Cichowicz is a senior studying nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh. He is interning with The Northside Chronicle during the fall semester.