Aug. 4, 2017 12:06 pm

An innovation district seeks to bridge an economic divide

Pittsburgh's new “EcoInnovation District” hopes the success of its tech cluster will bleed into two of the city's lowest-income neighborhoods.
This story is part of Grow PA, a reported series on economic development across 10 Pennsylvania counties underwritten by the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia. Sign up for our weekly curated email here.

In an effort to bridge the significant divide between two of the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods and its tech cluster and universities, Pittsburgh took another step forward with its plans to turn the city’s Uptown and West Oakland neighborhoods into an “EcoInnovation District.”

The city’s planning commission got its first look at the plan during a briefing on July 25. The main goals of the district are “healing the environment, supporting the needs of existing residents, and expanding job growth,” according to its website.

“The original idea came from when the BRT was first floated, and the communities said, ‘We don’t want to just be part of the infrastructure to connect to Downtown, we’re a neighborhood, too. We want to build a community,’” said Director of City Planning Ray Gastil. “This is a way to help a community that has a lot of resilience but will help it grow in a way that’s seen as innovative.”

The BRT, or bus rapid transit, is a $200 million transportation project that will connect Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh’s eastern neighborhoods with Downtown. The route was approved in May, and will be funded with a combination of state, local and federal money.

The “Welcome to Uptown” mosaic sign by sculptor James Simon greets visitors to the Pittsburgh neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of Simonsculpture)

The Brookings Institution describes an innovation district as a small geographic area within a city where medical institutions, research universities and companies are contained in the same area as accelerators, incubators and startups. These clusters — like Philadelphia’s University City (which has been studied by Brookings) — create unique dynamics that enable the very things that make cities attractive places to live and work, like walkability and ease of access to services.

This almost exactly describes Pittsburgh’s east-end neighborhoods: Oakland is home to Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, and Google Pittsburgh and the AlphaLab tech incubator are among the organizations in the East Liberty neighborhood. Uber Advanced Technologies Group is nearby, in Lawrenceville.


The city’s Uptown neighborhood, however, has missed out on the benefits of Pittsburgh’s tech growth, with a steadily declining population.

According to Census figures, there were about 8,500 residents in Uptown in 1940; by 1990 that figure had dropped by 60 percent. The slight uptick in population growth the neighborhood has seen since 1990 has been due to students from the universities, and the building of Allegheny County Jail.

Most of the heavy traffic from Oakland to Downtown passes through Uptown with little reason to stop along the way. That traffic affects the neighborhood’s air quality and creates safety concerns for pedestrians; many streets have little sidewalk access.

“The legacy of disinvestment is visible in the area’s empty buildings and land, and underlying these challenges are issues related to affordable housing,” according to the EcoInnovation District website.

The BRT plan calls for a designated transit lane, new sidewalks and bike lanes throughout Uptown. Gastil says the EcoInnovation District will build off that foundation, and create a safe, inviting environment in the neighborhood for residents, commuters and visitors, to preserve existing assets including Uptown’s residential core, and to foster investment in the area.

"The zoning should help facilitate not just commercial development but affordable housing as well."
Ray Gastil

The Brookings Institution created a road map for cities which it presented to the United States Conference of Mayors earlier this year. But Pittsburgh has been working on its EcoInnovation plan since 2015, when it first identified Uptown and West Oakland as the neighborhoods it wanted to target for reinvention.

The idea of innovation districts is not unique to Pittsburgh. Cleveland has put focus on reinventing its Lake Erie waterfront area, and Seattle leveraged the location of Amazon’s headquarters to revitalize its South Lake Union neighborhood. Boston’s Innovation District dates back to a plan from 2010, which engineered changes to the city’s Seaport area. Boston’s was the first project given the title of innovation district by the National League of Cities. Brookings says Philly’s University City could be on the cusp of something big.

Pittsburgh’s plan would require zoning changes which the city council would have to approve. The next steps in the process are a community meeting, the latest of several, on Aug. 29, followed by a formal hearing at the planning commission on Sept. 12.

Gastil anticipates a lot of questions and input from the community will be incorporated into the final plans.

“That word ‘innovation’ can mean all sorts of things,” he said. “The zoning should help facilitate not just commercial development but affordable housing as well.”


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