This is not a story about what businesses we’d all like to see in Uptown, Mt. Lebanon’s central business district on Washington Road. From surveys and social media, we know residents would like to see a large independent book store, an upscale grocery store, more parking (free, of course) and more space for farmers markets and food trucks.
No, this is a story about how local officials and volunteers want to guarantee that Uptown itself remains viable, visible and vital, helping to keep home values high and property taxes reasonable. Mt. Lebanon also has to figure out how to pay for the significant Uptown upgrades needed to ensure that kind of sustainability for the next 50 years.
A healthy commercial district is critical to the continued success of any mature town. “[Business districts’] vitality has a direct impact on property values in the community,” says Bill Callahan, president of the Mt. Lebanon Partnership, a 13-person group that serves as a nonprofit development corporation with the role of protecting Mt. Lebanon’s Main Street, and to some extent, all of our business districts, including Castle Shannon Boulevard and Beverly Road.
If that sounds like a tall order, it is, especially since the group has adopted a four-pronged approach: energizing the economic district by continually attracting good businesses; promoting and presenting events and activities; organizing volunteers and interested parties such as business owners, and making sure the district’s design is safe and pleasing.
That last word is a kicker for Partnership member Tim Steinouer, an artist and designer with experience in museum installations as well as in the film and TV industries: “It doesn’t invite you to get out of your car and walk around or to linger.”
So where to start? Mt. Lebanon has been studying and updating Uptown for decades. The most recent large-scale upgrade—a $600,000 streetscape with new furniture, sidewalks, streetlights and plantings—took place more than two decades ago, in 1993. In the past five years, however, Mt. Lebanon has commissioned three studies to update goals, starting with the 2013 Comprehensive Plan. The land use plan, which cost $70,000, is required every 10 years by the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code. It addresses community needs and serves as a guideline for development. Environmental Planning and Design (EPD) consultants produced the plan, which covers such topics as land use, transportation and protection of assets, including natural and historic resources.
The comprehensive plan suggested Mt. Lebanon conduct another plan—a strategic plan for Uptown. EPD completed that work two years ago for $14,090 with a goal of analyzing Uptown’s use and function. Its suggestions included making Parse Way (the alley behind the T station), more attractive and useful than it now is, improving sidewalks and seating along Washington Road, and expanding programming at Clearview Common (the parklet with the fountain, at Washington Road and Alfred Street).
After the strategic plan was completed, consultants from evolveEA last year embarked on the third plan—a $12,945 public space improvement plan for Washington Road that presents specific ideas of implementing the strategic plan’s suggestions for enhancing the streetscape, providing better connections to the T and improving Parse Way.
All three studies reflected public input gleaned from surveys, social media outreach and public meetings. Now it’s time to implement some of the suggestions. The two to-do items getting the most attention today are infrastructure and public art.
The public space improvement plan calls for replacing Uptown’s cracked aggregate concrete sidewalks, upgrading the lighting to make it brighter and more efficient and installing electrical conduit so public events can operate without using loud, smelly generators.
That’s not cheap. Milliron says municipal engineers have estimated the upgrades would cost $1.5 million. To fund them, Milliron applied for $1 million in multiple state grants over multiple years, including $500,000 from the Department of Community and Economic Development and $500,000 from the Gaming Economic Development Fund. He received $91,000 from GEDF, and that’s it.
It’s not that the plan wasn’t a good one, Milliron says. It’s a shortage in state funds—Pennsylvania has only approximately $6 million in grant money for the entire state this year. Milliron has hoped the municipality could pay for the upgrades through the capital budget, but so far, Uptown hasn’t made the cut. The recreation department, which received large capital appropriations for improvements to the pool, ice rink and to turf Seymour and Middle fields, and the public works department, which is getting a new, much needed facility, claimed higher priority.
“Uptown hasn’t received that kind of love in a very long time. We think it’s time,” says Callahan, who is very familiar with the needs of Main Streets, as he works as Western Representative for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, an agency that looks to “create vital places to live and work” as well as to “protect the uniqueness of Pennsylvania’s distinctive communities,” among other things.
The municipality and the Partnership are exploring all funding sources, which could include bonds, grants, private funding/naming rights, crowdfunding or more likely, a combination of these. In the meantime, Milliron is applying for several other grants in hopes of closing some of the funding gap.
Callahan jokes that it’s easy enough to know what not to theme our Main Street: “It’s not an Alpine Village.” But it’s just as simple to know what we do well: Art. As home to many working artists and the regionally successful Mt. Lebanon Artists’ Market held every September, Mt. Lebanon has art in its “wheelhouse,” Callahan says. “We have immense talent in terms of all kinds of arts in the community.”
Installing public art in Uptown could be what unifies it. “From our perspective, you really want to establish interconnected ways that people think about the place,” Callahan says. “[Art] can create those ligaments to bind together a place, visually, physically and emotionally.”
The Partnership charged its design review committee with working on public art. Steinouer began designing and assembling ideas, with a goal of making Uptown both a destination and an experience that invites people to walk around. The art should spark conversation. It could be controversial. It might be playful. Think of Chicago’s Cloud Gate (“The Bean”) and Wall Street’s Fearless Girl.
For the concept stage, there’s no budget, no firm plan and no specific timeline—just imagination and creativity. Property owners haven’t been asked yet if they would be willing to have art installed on their properties so it’s too early to list locations. Funding sources also are unknown, but the Partnership has raised about $30,000 through the Artists’ Market to use for art in Mt. Lebanon.
Steinouer’s laptop bursts with ideas, including kinetic sculptures that capitalize on the wind across Uptown’s ridge. Some of the ideas are representational art, such as bronze sculptures of a firefighter and police officer talking with children in front of the public safety center, or a grandfatherly gentleman reading to kids on the lawn of the Mt. Lebanon History Center across from Mt. Lebanon Public Library.
A five-story topographical map of Mt. Lebanon might be superimposed over the windows of the North Parking Garage, so drivers coming up Cedar Boulevard onto Washington Road would see something more visually pleasing than stairwells.
One of the most detailed suggestions involves upgrading the path to and from the T station area, from the entry plaza on Washington Road, all the way down the stairs to the station itself. The station location is problematic because it can’t be seen from Washington Road. Riders coming into Mt. Lebanon from town also have no idea what they are missing since they get off the train below grade.
Steinouer’s drawings call for the Washington Road clock tower to be painted to get rid of the bright blue that characterized the 1990s renovation of many Main Streets. The sidewalk could be stained with brighter colors and words that characterize the business district, like “dine” and “shop.” A digital screen in the stairway wall would display real-time train schedules from the Port Authority. Weather, community activities and revenue-generating ads also could be spotlighted on the screen (and on another placed near the roof of the T station.)
The stairwell from Washington Road to Parse Way could include a colorful mural of pictures of life in Mt. Lebanon. Similar artwork would extend across Parse Way and down the stairs leading to the T station, creating a visual portal.
The art would work in reverse as well, as people disembarking from the T would have a clearly marked path up to Washington Road.
Boring chain link safety fencing at the station could be augmented with lacy woven designs, creating a more pleasant backdrop.
Steinouer’s ideas call for more unified signage. Municipally owned buildings would be labeled with large, easy-to-read stainless steel or aluminum letters in an art deco font (like the decorative lettering already used in the municipal building behind the customer service center and in the commission chamber) and the black and gold place signs throughout Uptown could be jettisoned. He also suggests planting more trees.
The plans and budget will continue to develop, and Steinouer is open to suggestions. “There is no piece of art that everyone is going to like,” he says. “Art is meant to evoke conversation.”
Once the design committee has finished, the Partnership will put a final proposal to the commissioners and the plan will follow all the municipal processes for public input.
The idea of an upgrade enthralls Partnership treasurer Steve Denenberg, who, along with his wife, Wendy, organizes the Artists’ Market (September 22 and 23 this year). The pair’s 43-year-old business, Create A Frame/Handworks Gallery, is the second longest tenured business on Washington Road. Potomac Bakery is the longest.
The Denenbergs emphasize that Mt. Lebanon is the only community in the south suburbs that has both a downtown district people can walk to and parking garages for those who wish to drive. A new streetscape would only enhance Uptown and attract more people, Denenberg says: “That’s good for business and good for Mt. Lebanon.”