We spoke to Lenore Williams, chairperson of the Baum Centre Initiative and a member of East Liberty’s Community Planning Committee since 2014, to get her insights into how East Liberty’s Community Planning Committee works. She shares her experiences and what she wished more people understood about development in East Liberty.
Can you take us inside a Community Planning Committee meeting? What is discussed and considered?
Say someone wants to build something on a property ELDI owns, perhaps the property is a parking lot and someone wants to build a house on it. That person will present their plans to the Community Planning Committee to make sure that what is being proposed fits the community plan. Whether that’s in terms of the use, the design, the effect it has on parking in the neighborhood, whether it’s affordable or not—every aspect is considered.
East Liberty’s community plans outlined a vision of mixed-income housing, to ensure that everybody has a stake in the neighborhood. The plans also addressed things like walkability and public transportation, so that if you don’t have a car, there’s still public transportation or bicycle access, sidewalks for people to walk on, etc. These are all some of the things we think about and check for in new developments. The goal is to make sure that everybody in the neighborhood is thought of and represented equally.
How do East Liberty’s community plans factor into discussions at the committee?
These plans guide all of our discussions. The plans are still relevant to the community to this day—even the 1999 plan—because they are living plans. This past year especially has shown us the importance of having a livable plan, because things change. When the 1999 plan was created, for example, we weren’t thinking much about water remediation and permeable surfaces or some of the other ecological aspects of a neighborhood. We were thinking in terms of parking, parks, etc. But because the plans were created with input from a wide range of people—young and old, people of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds—they set a comprehensive yet flexible structure for what development should look like in the community. So, when a developer or individual comes in and says, “This is what we want to do”, we check to make sure it meets all of the things that the neighborhood wants.
Who is on the community planning committee?
Committee members are from all different backgrounds and experiences, but we all come together for the same purpose, and we’re all unpaid volunteers. The ELDI staff is there to guide us. They make sure that the projects we’re reviewing are not a waste of time for us. If someone is serious about what they want to do, we’ll review it, and if it doesn’t pass muster inside those committees for one reason or another, then the project may be delayed or cancelled.
“Committee members are from all different backgrounds and experiences, but we all come together for the same purpose: to check that new developments fit East Liberty’s community plans.”
When a development comes through the committee and there’s something that the committee doesn’t approve of, what happens next?
We send them back. We insist on a revised plan.
Are most developers responsive to feedback from the committee?
Yes, and for some of them, they have to do things that they’ve never done before, depending on where they’re coming from—especially outside developers who maybe have never thought of a need specific to our neighborhood.
If a developer wants to bypass the committee, what happens?
The committee will stand against it. If they decide they’re not going to revise their plans, they often still have to go to the City Planning Commission, and we will be there to say that we oppose this project because of X, Y, Z.
Is that usually effective?
We have been very fortunate in this city, especially under the Peduto administration. We have officials who will tell a developer, “If you want to build this building and you have not met with the community group or if the community group is standing against you, then I suggest you go back and talk with them, and we’ll put this on hold until it’s done.” Within the staff of Zoning and City Planning, they will also tell people that they have to follow a process, but if they choose not to and ignore it, that’s where the communities come into play.
It’s also important to note that if we’re challenging a development, it’s only because we’re looking in terms of benefit to the community, which should, in turn, be a benefit to that business or development. If it’s good for the community, then the community will support it.
“If it’s good for the community, then the community will support it.”
Can you give an example of a development that the committee has helped shape?
The Mellon’s Orchard South Apartments and Harvard Beatty Housing project from Trek Development has received a lot of input from the committee. For example, we advised them on the look and design of the building to ensure that it feels like a neighborhood residence and not a huge apartment tower and that it was built in an environmentally friendly way. We also wanted to make sure that the area around it remains walkable and that it had affordable housing, community spaces within the buildings, and plenty of natural light.
What changes have you witnessed in East Liberty from the time you began working on the committee until now?
Many changes already happened before I got there. But that’s the beauty of having a staff that can say, “Well, this is what happened before, and this is where it is now. This is where everybody’s saying they want it to go. Do we still want to go there? And if we do still want to go there, how do we go about doing it?”
That’s why I stress the importance of creating livable plans, because things can change. During the time that I’ve been there, ELDI already had these community plans in place so now it’s just about reviewing some of the buildings that want to come in and see if they meet those obligations that the community has put on them. We know what everybody’s looking for and that’s what we hope to give them—and it’s never an island. It’s never just one group of people deciding what’s going to happen, nor should it ever be a situation where people from outside the neighborhood come in and say, “This is what this neighborhood is.”
“It’s never just one group of people deciding what’s going to happen, nor should it ever be a situation where people from outside the neighborhood come in and say, ‘This is what this neighborhood is.'”
What do you wish more people understood about development in East Liberty?
The one thing that is often misunderstood about East Liberty, or something that many people are not aware of because the neighborhood looks fantastic now, is that there is affordable housing. There’s more affordable housing in East Liberty than in most neighborhoods in the city—just because things look great, doesn’t mean that that’s an indication of what is behind the walls. That’s one of the goals too. You should never be able to say that this is a “poor people’s neighborhood” by looking at the buildings. Nobody should be judged that way. People want to make sure that their homes and the area around them are taken care of and maintained.
This was part of ELDI’s plan when they first started: to make sure that the slumlord buildings were taken care of as that property came up for sale. ELDI would buy them and turn those properties around as a benefit to the neighborhood. It was never really a benefit to ELDI. And as we look at projects coming in, that’s been one of the things we’ve always looked at. Is there affordable housing? And how much affordable housing? It’s the duty of community groups to make sure that what the community wants is what it gets. If this is the plan, if this is what people who have been here a long time want to have, then that’s what we’re supposed to do for them.