Pittsburgh, PA: Events Promise to Energize California Avenue Corridor in Brighton Heights

(Katie Brigham/Post-Gazette) Norma Woodruff of Brighton Heights helps prepare food for La Casita food truck last Wednesday. Owners Roberto Morales of the Hill District and Bobbie Dickey of Garfield drive the truck around Pittsburgh, serving up authentic Puerto Rican style food.

By Diana Nelson Jones | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

(Katie Brigham/Post-Gazette) Norma Woodruff of Brighton Heights helps prepare food for La Casita food truck last Wednesday. Owners Roberto Morales of the Hill District and Bobbie Dickey of Garfield drive the truck around Pittsburgh, serving up authentic Puerto Rican style food.
(Katie Brigham/Post-Gazette)
Norma Woodruff of Brighton Heights helps prepare food for La Casita food truck last Wednesday. Owners Roberto Morales of the Hill District and Bobbie Dickey of Garfield drive the truck around Pittsburgh, serving up authentic Puerto Rican style food.

The Brighton Heights Citizens Federation office was in Joan and Pete Bellisario’s house for years until May 2012, when the all-volunteer board moved into a former hair salon on California Avenue.

The federation joined a clutch of entrepreneurs on several blocks of storefronts that include Friday’s Market, a grocery whose butcher counter has a regional draw and is soon to expand.

“We wanted more visibility in the community,” Ms. Bellisario said.

It worked.

Lauren Stauffer, the 27-year-old proprietor of the social venture PGHRetail, had just moved to the neighborhood and found the federation to pitch an idea: “I had wanted a second-Saturday happening on every business corridor [citywide]” but was turned down by the Sprout Fund for excessive scope, she said. When she narrowed her focus to California Avenue, she got a Biz Buzz grant of $7,000 from the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

The result is California Markets, a series of events every second Saturday through September to bring new eyes to the corridor.

The July event is this Saturday, a barbecue cook-off and home brew competition from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. with grocery owner Tom Friday as honorary judge. An informational meeting is at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Java House, 3619 California Ave. (For more information and to enter the competition, visit pghretail.com/california-markets/.)

The series draws on the ballast Friday’s Market has provided the avenue since the early 1970s, when Mr. Friday’s father moved it there from East Ohio Street. Attorney Bill Goodrich has an office across the street and lives nearby. He remembers Friday’s as the only retail a decade ago.

Friday’s bustled on, making home deliveries, supplying restaurants and waiting on walk-ins who came from down the street, other neighborhoods, other counties and nearby states.

“There were no street lights and no trees,” Mr. Goodrich said.

“The only vacancy now is my double storefront,” he said, noting that two other storefronts are soon to be rented.

“Remember, Lawrenceville took two decades to pop,” and Brighton Heights has never been a hotbed of retail, said Mr. Goodrich, who owns three commercial buildings.

“Friday’s has been our anchor, but we don’t get much marketing or attention like a lot of neighborhoods do,” Mr. Bellisario said. “We were happy when Lauren showed up, and she ran with it.”

Federation board member Susan Benn has led numerous neighborhood gardening efforts and is seeing an influx of people who might inspire more investment in California Avenue.

“We’re seeing more young people, more gays, more artists and people who are interested in different kinds of eating and things to buy,” she said.

Mr. Goodrich said his own efforts and the federation’s work “have made the avenue 500 percent better than when I put in the coffee shop” in 2005, he said. He and a partner started The Vault Coffeehouse in a former bank building, and after a good run and a brief successor it was vacant for a year before Bob and Yolanda Rhoden bought it in 2011. Their enterprise is Java House.

“This boulevard has seen transformation, definitely for the good,” Mr. Rhoden said. “The California Markets idea is a good one. Anything to bring attention to the boulevard.”

Mr. Rhoden said that having Jack Wagner and Bill Peduto each establish campaign offices on the avenue during the mayoral primary race “was a nice little bump.”

Those had been vacant storefronts. By August, one will be the JP Performing Arts Center, a dance- and music-instruction day care for children. Another vacancy will be filled by a bike-spinning fitness studio.

Mr. Friday said he intends to expand into the property next door, where he will put his freezers and coolers, and wants to reconfigure his store at some point, “maybe for a sandwich shop or cafe in the front.”

Several stakeholders said the avenue could use a family-style or foodie restaurant.

“We do need another draw, and that could be professional offices,” Mr. Goodrich said. “If someone comes to see doctors, lawyers or accountants, they use the businesses along the corridor.”

The city’s Biz Buzz program started with a grant for a Brookline local retail campaign last year. The program is meant for neighborhoods that do not qualify for the state’s Main Street program.

Josette Fitzgibbons, the URA’s Main Street and Elm Street coordinator, said the grants reward creative ideas to get new people to visit and “folks in their own neighborhood to use the business district.”

The program emphasizes using volunteers to work with businesses to make a splash that could be a catalyst to something more sustainable, she said. “It’s the kind of thing that could bring in a new business.”

http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/local/neighborhoods-city/events-promise-to-energize-california-avenue-corridor-in-brighton-heights-694636/