Community development requires careful planning and a faithful commitment to stewarding a vision. East Liberty’s vision was defined by residents in the neighborhood’s 1999 and 2010 community plans. We have been working hard at ELDI ever since to ensure that new developments match that vision, aka the wants and needs of long-time residents.
East Liberty’s Community Planning Committee plays a key role in this work. Made up of ELDI board members, community members, and representatives from City government, this committee guides new real estate developments in the neighborhood. Committee members give developers and individual residents feedback on every aspect of their proposals—from the aesthetics of a building to the amount of affordable housing planned.
In the third installment of our Community Planning Committee series, we talk to committee member, Gary Cirrincione. Gary is an architect and passionate community advocate. He takes us into an average meeting and shares what he thinks is the essential ingredient needed in community planning.
➡ Read the first posts in this series here.
What do you do and what is your stake in East Liberty?
I came to Pittsburgh almost 51 years ago to go to architecture school and never left. A few years later, I bought a home in what was Garfield, but because the census tract lines moved, I now live in East Liberty. In addition to being an architect, I’m a community activist. I’m the co-founder of the Sojourner House MOMS program and an outreach co-chair for the Garfield Land Trust.
➡ For more on Gary’s work in the community, see this WESA story.
How did you become a member of East Liberty’s Community Planning Committee?
Around 30 years ago, someone I knew recommended I join ELDI’s Real Estate Committee. Karen LaFrance was the executive director of ELDI at the time. That committee was the predecessor to East Liberty’s Community Planning Committee—it encompassed the work of community planning and real estate, which has now been split into two committees.
Can you take us into a typical Community Planning Committee meeting? What is the atmosphere like? What is discussed and considered?
Things are sort of winding down now that we are coming close to realizing East Liberty’s community plans, but at one point when we were meeting in person, meetings were quite robust. There would usually be eight to 10 people in the conference room at ELDI’s former offices at 100 Sheridan Avenue. At times, there weren’t enough seats in the room and chairs had to be dragged in from adjoining offices. It was the place to be in terms of information and community input about what was happening in East Liberty. While that gives the perception that it was an “insider’s club”, it was completely open to the public. At one point, I had a new neighbor on Black Street and Skip [Skip Schwab, ELDI’s deputy director] said, “Sure, bring them. The door is always open here.” So, it’s quite the opposite of the backroom deal.
The atmosphere is collegial at times. We joke and have fun, sharing stories and catching up on how everyone’s projects are going. Even with the switch to virtual meetings, the intensity has not diminished. The dynamic is always evolving and changing, driven by the people who are in the room.
How does East Liberty’s Community Planning Committee work to safeguard the vision for East Liberty outlined in the community plans?
East Liberty’s Community Planning Committee, in its best judgment, carries out the vision of East Liberty’s community plans and what the community wants to see. Each committee member has a different perspective on that vision. There’s a tendency, because we’re human, to focus on pieces of the plans rather than the whole document. So, we’re often reminding ourselves of what’s in the plans, revisiting parts of them, and occasionally being prompted by ELDI staff about what the plans say. Fortunately, Lenore is very good at keeping that on track. That’s the great challenge—to see the whole overview, which is sometimes hard given the complexity of an urban neighborhood as large as East Liberty.
That’s the great challenge—to see the whole overview, which is sometimes hard given the complexity of an urban neighborhood as large as East Liberty.
Can you give an example of a development in the neighborhood that the committee has helped shape?
There’s the example of Harvard Beatty Apartments, the second phase of rental housing being built on the Mellon’s Orchard South site at the corner of North Euclid Avenue and Station Street (formerly Penn Circle) by Trek Development Group. There was considerable pushback from the committee regarding the design. We were concerned that the building looked institutional, commercial, and like the stereotype of low-income housing. We urged Trek to incorporate different materials and colors into the design as well as look into the possibility of adding some balconies. They took our advice and the end design is much more visually appealing and better matches the character of the neighborhood.
There is a lot of innovation going on in East Liberty, so we routinely have to remind people who come to the East Liberty Community Planning Committee to stop doing things the way they’ve always been done and think about what they could be instead. Once they start thinking about what things can be, we have a lot of people in that room who are very creative and bring a broad range of experience.
“Once they start thinking about what things can be, we have a lot of people in that room who are very creative and bring a broad range of experience.”
What do you wish more people understood about the community planning process in East Liberty or about community planning in general?
It requires a passionate commitment to your community. I’m fortunate to be in a room with neighbors who share a passion for our community, and I think that’s the critical piece. You need to go in there and put your heart and energy into this neighborhood. This is our home, and to feel secure in it and make it even better, you need to give a little of yourself. What we’re doing and what ELDI is doing is a template that can be used everywhere, as an example of best practices for community living.