Back in 2011, the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute in cooperation with AARP conducted a workshop in Bellevue and Avalon called the “Active Living Workshop” which resulted in a 105 page document entitled the “Active Living Workshop: Summary of Events, Findings, and Recommendations” (click the title of the document to download a copy of the report for yourself). If you’re like me, you probably never heard of this document, which from all appearances took an immense amount of resources and time to put together. This report provides a very detailed list of recommendations and suggestions for the revitalization of our continually struggling community, with not only the recommendations, but how to accomplish these recommendations. It is a fantastic piece of vision casting for what could be in Bellevue.
After having been presented with this summary of findings and recommendations for the Bellevue and Avalon business districts, I was shocked by what I read. Dan Burden, the Executive Director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute writes this in his introduction to the document:
I hope this message summarizes the two days we spent in Pittsburgh, observing the walkability, livability and aging-in-place elements of Lincoln Avenue and its surrounding blocks. Your community assets – a treasure trove of homes, buildings, churches and streets – are remarkable and unique.
I found your communities compelling — a good place to invest, to re-energize, to re-make, to re-tool, to complete and make whole again. I don’t say this lightly as I have traveled all parts of North America, having worked in 3,500 communities.
To emphasize, let me make this contrast. Nearly 80% of our built America is now suburban and most of this 80% has poor form. These places will be tough to rescue. They force long drives, and they force driving to most
places. For most of our suburban nation, streets do not connect, most homes and buildings, though new, do not hold up to the quality and thoughtfulness of properties in your two communities. In your case, because of your better
urban form, the elbow grease and polish you will apply has a starting point. Villages, Towns, Boroughs and Cities that will make it –setting a good place for our future economy, will have an easier time … but they will need to retool
and remake their investments, too.
Why do I say this? Too many cities and towns in America have stripped activity from daily life through ad hoc planning, so much so, that walking is no longer natural or comfortable in many areas. Although this condition is currently true of both Bellevue and Avalon, you have the right layout and dimensions of streets, connectivity, buried cobbles and bricks, block patterns, density and location — and much more that matters. Your two places can be retooled, and we think that you are ready.
We have the opportunity to build communities that represent our highest capacities and places that support engagement, personal health and the natural world.
When I first read these words, I nearly jumped out of my skin with excitement. Someone from outside the community sees the same potential us “radicals” have been been talking about for years now. Bellevue has everything it needs to be a fabulous, thriving, healthy community!
If you’re tuned into the news of what is happening in our region, you surely already know the Pittsburgh metropolitan region is experiencing a nearly unprecedented renaissance. People, businesses, investors, entrepreneurs, and dreamers are coming to Pittsburgh from all over the country. Whether they’re looking for a lower cost of living, a better opportunity to make a name for themselves in their respective fields, or some combination of the two, for the first time in three, even four, decades people are flocking to Pittsburgh.
Yet, Bellevue remains stagnant. Other than the great new addition of “Berry Quool,” we haven’t had a new business in our business district worth writing home about in years. While houses in the neighboring community of Brighton Heights (city of Pittsburgh) are selling for above asking price, our residential areas continue to struggle with homes begging to be purchased.
Why is Bellevue struggling? What is keeping Bellevue from tapping into the growth our region is experiencing?
It has been the foundational conviction of Liberty in Bellevue that many of the answers to these questions can be found within the walls of Bellevue Borough Hall. It appears Mr. Burden agrees, as he writes:
Quite frankly, we were concerned that staff and elected leaders did not take part in such a well-publicized events backed by personal invitations. This does not bode well for this topic. Outside of two public safety officials, and a number of nonprofits and county staff and leaders, we did not see borough staff or elected leaders. We found a lack of attentiveness to demographics. If new families are to come in and make investments in quality homes, if the many predicted small companies that are to replace the historic steel industry
are to settle into your main street and side streets, then they will seek out a main street (like Lincoln) that represents the best of placemaking.
They want a place they can afford and that they can help stimulate, to create a thriving, enduring condition. Your diversity of people will help you. Your libraries and your schools, though, will need greater investments. And you must recognize that the younger generations that you want to attract will want to eat out and have a drink at the same time, in their own neighborhood. Some of the approaches to embracing the future are wanting.
Not only does the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute agree with the founding members of Liberty in Bellevue that there is amazing potential to be found in Bellevue. They also appear to agree that the problems facing Bellevue begin with a lack of visionary leadership within our elected officials.
In an attempt to gather as much information as possible concerning this report we reached out to Linda Woshner, Kathy Coder, and a few other prominent community leaders. We hoped we would learn what happened to this report and how it has been implemented throughout the past two years since it was published. According to President Woshner, the report was ” to be utilized by the Streetscape Design Committee of Allegheny Together.” However, Councilwoman Coder reminded us that the “Streetscape Design Committee” which is also known as the “Business District Advisory Committee” (BDAC) has been put on hold, indefinitely, by President Woshner and Bellevue is “hanging by a thread” in terms of its participation in the Allegheny Together revitalization program. Another prominent community leader, who asked to remain unnamed for the time being, informed us that when this report was shared with Bellevue Council the response they received was effectively, “We already have a plan for revitalizing the business district…thanks anyway.”
In two years, we have yet to see any progress in the implementation of this plan or the borough’s own plan.
Nevertheless, the residents of Bellevue have already demonstrated they want new ideas and change when they voted for a complete leadership overhaul this past May. It has become more than apparent to Liberty in Bellevue that we’ve struck a cord among people who are desperate to see growth and prosperity in the community we love. We firmly believe that the next step in seeing Bellevue’s potential lived out is to renew the focus on economic development and revitalization. Rather than attempting to legislate growth and prosperity, which is effectively what our current council is attempting to do with the so called “Pawn Shop Ordinance” and “Vacant Store Front Ordinance,” a concerted effort must be made to take advantage of the resources at Bellevue’s disposal (this publication being one of them) and build upon the solid infrastructure already in place.
When the new council and new mayor take office in the coming year, we anticipate they will be much more receptive to the ideas and recommendations given by BDAC, BIGr, Town Center Associates, Allegheny Together, the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, and any other professional organizations willing to lead Bellevue into the future. Rather than seeing fresh new ideas and the assistance of professionals as a threat to one’s power and burying them under layers and layers of red tape, perhaps we can work together to put some action to the suggestions like those made in this report.
I’ll conclude this post with one final quote from Mr. Burden’s report:
We have identified short term, mid-term, and longer term recommendations, along with high priority short term goals that can be accomplished within 100 days. That’s all it takes – 100 days to get on-the-ground changes in place in your community to support active living. I look forward to hearing of your successes. I encourage you to reach out to your local resources: as you take steps for greater community health, well-being, social equity and economic vitality.
May the winds of change bring much good to you, and through you.
If you have time, leaf through the 105 pages of the Active Living Workshop Report and share your thoughts in the comments below. As we’ve said for years now, Bellevue is at a crossroads: it can either A) continue down the path of apathy, neglect, and decline, or B) we can actually come together and finally adopt some of these new ideas. It will take everyone getting involved. There is no single person or group responsible for the decline and it will take more than a single person or group to revitalize what we have.