As I walked down Bryant Street to meet Christine Mondor at Tazza D’oro, I recalled walking the same block more than a decade ago with residents of the local community organization. Despite being on of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods, Highland Park’s business district was floundering, but they were hopeful that a proposed three-story mixed-use building would provide a much-needed spark.
That project stalled in the midst of a community-wide debate about the historical significance of a modest building on the corner of Bryant and North St. Clair Streets. Preserving and integrating it into a new development would be more expensive and complicated than demolishing it. A dry cleaner occupied the first floor and basement – where moldy, fibrous stalagmites dangled from the ceiling. While the debate lingered, the business owner died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Top Image: evolveEA’s Hill District Centre Avenue Corridor Design Plan won an Urban Design Award from AIA Pittsburgh
Courtesy of evolveEA
p4 Pittsburgh, a joint-effort between the City of Pittsburgh and the Heinz Endowments, provides a framework to guide citywide development in ways that are inclusive, sustainable and innovative. p4 is organized around four themes: People, Planet, Place and Performance. The initiative includes annual conferences along with projects geared towards implementing p4’s vision for Pittsburgh’s future. One such project referred to in this interview – the p4 Performance Measures – is a scorecard for how well prospective development projects align with p4 goals.
When the building was eventually determined to be a contributing historic structure, it put an end to the both the debate and the proposed building. Since then, the dry cleaner building has been handsomely restored, and is now anchored by a popular Belgian restaurant. A new three-story building was designed and built just a few parcels away from the original location, and various storefronts are occupied with shops and restaurants.
So much of what we call community development can be seen on this one block. Vacancies, tired-looking buildings and suboptimal market conditions clashed with community process and historic preservation, until the community, ever vigilant, read the changing economic tides and led Bryant Street to vibrant place it’s become.
I wanted this interview to address to the architectural implications of p4 Pittsburgh, while keeping p4’s broader goals (towards People, Planet, Place and Performance) in mind. In my opinion, few can speak to this as well as Christine Mondor. I was relieved when she agreed to the interview, as I had no backup plan.
Christine and her husband, Marc Mondor, founded evolveEA (short for “environment :: architecture”), a design practice that lies at the “intersection of sustainability and the built environment.” To me, “intersection” is the key word there, as evolveEA’s focus on sustainability is not limited to individual projects, but extends to the very systems that produce buildings, infrastructure and landscapes. The environment – which to evolveEA is as much social and economic as it is physical – and the systems that shape our relationship to it were recurring themes through our conversation. Christine is an architect, a member of Pittsburgh’s City Planning Commission and a lead member of the p4 Technical Teams.
Downstream: What did the p4 Conference set out to accomplish?
Mondor: I wasn’t part of the conference planning team, but can speak to it generally. The first p4 conference in 2015 got people talking about P4 as a series of goals for real estate development. During it, we realized something about ourselves, in particular, the need for a conversation about equity and what it means. Placemaking and performance measures were the easier parts, or perhaps the more familiar to most. The People category was more difficult. This year’s conference helped to fill that gap.
I’ve been to a number of national conferences about equity and the relationships between development and communities, and this felt like this was one of the more open-ended conversations. In other places, the point of view is often, “Here are strategies to solve it” – and the “it” is already defined. This year’s conference pushed us out of our comfort zones because the “it” is something we need to define together. When Mayor Peduto calls for a “Pittsburgh for all,” each one of us has something different in mind. It is only through getting together and exchanging thoughts that we can find where our ideas intersect.
Downstream: Did we figure “it” out at this conference?
Mondor: I would expect that the focus on equity was challenging for some, while others might have thought it did not drill deep enough. We all probably have a better sense of what we need to be talking about, and that the discussion is not a one-time conversation. I think the conference is the opening, not the conclusion. We are just beginning to define the issues.
Downstream: Majestic Lane, from the Mayor’s office, said that the conferences are not fixed and will shift from year to year based on the mood of what’s happening in the city. What mood was this conference responding to?
Mondor: I think that whenever cities and communities experience rapid change, there are always social concerns that need to be addressed. It’s easier to focus on the physical change, but the social changes surrounding it are more difficult because you’re not even sure what you’re seeing. The first p4 conference got us all on the same page that the physical environment is changing and that we should aim high.
The second conference began to address the concerns everybody has about what this means. Real estate markets are changing from weak to strong in some neighborhoods but not others. We need serious reinvestment in our infrastructure that will change the way we move ourselves and resources like water and energy to our neighborhoods. Community development is intertwined with community identity and that is not an issue that is resolved once and for all. In the future I hope that we’ll continue to use p4 as a place to work on those issues. I’m not aware of other cities where people of so many different sectors are having this conversation. Hopefully it will move out of the conference hall and into the shops, and churches, and living rooms of our neighborhoods.
Downstream: I’ve learned that p4 is development-centered because real estate projects are the touchstone for broader issues like fair housing, transit and environmental concerns. Are development projects the right vehicle for bringing about policy changes and other social goals?
Mondor: We should clarify that the Mayor defined P4 – People, Planet, Place and Performance – as a framework to think about the aspirations that we have for our city. It is especially useful to help organizations, departments, and agencies frame their work in a common language and to set real and measurable goals. The Department of City Planning is using the principles in the reboot of the City’s Comprehensive Plan, and PWSA’s green infrastructure initiatives are part of the framework. The P4 Performance Measures that were presented at the conference are a tool to help the URA and others to evaluate projects that receive investment of public funds. Most of those projects are centered on real estate development.
Christine Mondor courtesy of evolveEA
The Performance Measures project teams were tasked to consider: If we were to evaluate a URA project, what criteria would be important, and what are the metrics for that criteria? And then the URA and Heinz are investigating how this would play out across on an estimated 30 to 40 projects a year. It’s a good place to start because buildings are very tangible, and making them better benefits both the individual project and can influence performance across the city. Implementing the P4 evaluation metrics also requires us to address issues that can only be addressed at the system level.
Individual projects perform even better when they are connected to strong infrastructure systems. For example, a project might be able to retain all of its rainwater on site, but our region’s stormwater issues need to be solved by improving our existing infrastructure as a network of green and grey improvements—a design problem that is outside of the scope of a single project. The need for strong systems also applies to things like affordable housing, job opportunity, and economic development.
Projects happen quickly in comparison to systemic change, and that slower pace can be frustrating to communities who want or need things to progress quickly. This is why it is important to have ongoing P4 conversations in the communities. Projects can help create short-term progress with lasting effects and can help galvanize the community around longer-term systematic change.
Downstream: Even with those systems-level changes that may ultimately become public policy, where are the leverage points to implement them?
Mondor: I am always inspired by Donella Meadows, a scientist who wrote about ecological systems, because she gave us many levers of change and says that some are more effective than others. I’m going to summarize them into three types of things you can do. The first is restrict or enhance how resources move through the system, which is effective but not very long lasting. For example, if you want people to use less gasoline you can raise the price at the pump. However, as soon as the price goes down, people typically resume their old habits. Second, you can change the way the system works, which has longer lasting effects. In the previous example, this could happen not at the pump but by requiring cars and trucks to be more efficient through laws like the California efficiency standards. Levers like this have much broader and more permanent effect because automakers change the ways their cars use the resource. Lastly, we can change the goals of the system. In the previous example, this would mean creating a culture that values walkability and livable urban places, where cars are not essential in the first place. It is the most difficult way to change a system, but it’s the most durable way and has cascading benefits when you do.
Pertaining to p4, we’re saying that we want to change the values of the system and that is tough, but we are starting from the ground up. The Performance Measures are meant to encourage higher performing projects. The next step is to align our programs and policies that change the structure of systems like affordable housing or stormwater, so that projects do not function in a vacuum. Equity, the focus of this P4 Conference, is one of the most difficult topics because it ultimately has to involve a change in values, and that is not a short term design problem. When we get together to talk about equity, it’s difficult because it’s not project-based, it’s system-based, and we’re just beginning the conversation of what we want at the end.
Downstream: As an architect, the p4 metrics are envisioned to be implemented at places like the URA. What do they mean for your profession?
Mondor: Some people have said that they are happy for a clear and transparent system that levels the playing field for developers and expedites the process. They want to know up front what they need to address and they’ll adjust their planning and proformas [development budgets – ed.] accordingly. It helps them understand what’s important to our communities and how that relates to funding and approvals.
Architects want to do great work and need clients who want the same. If this pushes a client to go in a direction they might not otherwise go, that is great. If it increases the quality of design, that is welcome. The architects that I have talked to hope that the P4 Performance Measures will do that, without being onerous. The URA/Heinz team is working through the implementation challenges such as timing, documentation, and accountability.
Downstream: Projects are taking longer than ever to get through the pipeline for approvals and permits. Will this add even more time?
Mondor: There’ s a tradeoff between having a project evaluated fast but not knowing what’s it’s being evaluated against, and adding time, but with transparency and predictability. Consistency and transparency are especially important as we have more out of town investment.
Downstream: So you’re not particularly worried about this being a bureaucratic problem?
Mondor: We’ve heard anecdotes from out of town developers, especially ones who work on the east coast and west coast, who complain about multiyear approval processes in those places. In that respect, our processes are still fairly expedited. However, they are longer than we are used to, and this is not just in the City of Pittsburgh. I think that folks are working to strike the balance between streamlined processes that still give us the accountability that makes a great city.
Some of the places I’ve traveled to recently, like Colorado and California, have intense approval processes for development. But that said, the processes are fairly clear and the project teams are able to plan accordingly, and the responsibilities are spread out across the team. However, it should be said that no process is without its frustrations!
Downstream: What is the scale of project that p4 Performance Metrics applies to?
Mondor: The P4 Performance Metrics are intended for mid-level and larger-scale projects. It was estimated that this would apply to 30 or 40 projects a year. It doesn’t apply to individual homeowners, storefronts, anything the URA does around business development, or things like that. I think there is a sweet spot for project size.
It’s intended for projects with professional design and construction teams who have the capacity to respond to the requirements. Some community organization projects might be impacted, but I think that the intention is that this will affect mid- to larger-scale developments like some of the larger housing projects, riverfront development, and the anticipated growth at the Lower Hill and Hazelwood sites. The P4 project team, Jake Pawlak at the URA and Rebecca Flora with Heinz, could tell you more specifically about how this will be implemented.
Downstream: The “Community” section of the performance measures seems to be aligned with the best practices we already have – working collaboratively with community-based organizations and following community plans where they exist. A problem neighborhoods often have is when a development doesn’t align with its plan, and there is no way to enforce it. Every plan is unique and there’s no uniformity. Was that issue considered?
Mondor: Community plans are in a limbo because they’re never formally adopted. The Department of City Planning has briefed the Planning Commission on the creation of neighborhood plans and recognized community organizations. This would enable plans to be acknowledged or adopted, and would include plan standards and ensure that communities across the city have access to planning processes.
The implementation of neighborhood plans will take time but it’s definitely something the Planning Commission has supported. The quality of the plan is influenced by the quality of the process. There are plans that were created during much different market conditions, like the Baum-Centre overlay, that need to be updated to address the rapid growth in that area and the emergence of increased transit use. We have new issues and we need new direction on how to deal with them. Neighborhood plans will be an important tool to shape our communities.
The change is exponentially fast. Not long ago we were pushing for development, and our development tools were invitational. For example, Friendship Development Associates and the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative invited people into a shrinking community to take stewardship of some amazing architectural assets. After years of slow progress, it has accelerated and people are concerned it’s too fast. Community organizations and the City need different tools. This needs to be knitted into p4, because if we’re just doing it at the project level, we’re not dealing with the systematic issues we talked about earlier.
Downstream: When you put the p4 Housing and Land metrics together, there’s a focus on affordable housing and targeting areas that are blighted or otherwise distressed. There is a persistent notion that affordable housing belongs in distressed areas, which places that burden on neighborhoods like East Liberty. Do these metrics encourage or discourage the integration of affordability into more stable, higher income communities like Shadyside, Squirrel Hill or Lawrenceville?
Mondor: This is a larger issue more comprehensively dealt with by the Affordable Housing Task Force and its recommendations. The P4 Performance Metrics only deal with it at a project level and will not solve all the problems. I know that the Housing and Land Teams were looking for ways to make tangible progress now, while allowing for flexibility as the AFTF recommendations are implemented.
Downstream: What about projects like the former Poli’s site in Squirrel Hill, where ACTION-housing will be building affordable housing? Would a future project like that be disadvantaged because it wouldn’t score the same points for distress as it would in a less affluent, lower-priced real estate neighborhood?
Mondor: Not every project will score well on all sections. Projects are shaped by many factors and not simply to achieve a particular credit. However, we hope that project teams may adopt strategies that they weren’t previously considering due to the framework. If they do not qualify for a credit – for example, if they have no housing in their project the housing points are not achievable – they could amplify other aspects of their project to make up for that. The intent is to have a net positive outcome. This issue about locational advantage is a good question and it’s really important we out those concerns now.
Downstream: Similarly, the “Connect” metrics reward projects that are close to public transit, and it’s generally understood why that’s a good thing. Does this process penalize good projects in places that have poor transit, but desperately need it?
Mondor: It’s a good question, which comes first? Does housing development help to build a population that will create more demand for better transportation? Connections is one of the metrics that is both cause and effect – it both drives better connectedness and responds to better connectedness. We have a lot of neighborhoods that are both disinvested and have a lot of connectivity, so it makes sense to invest there.
All of these things are wrapped together. More transit makes development more attractive, which creates more pressure for development values, which makes us have to think about affordability – if you make change at a scale that is significant enough. Are the p4 Performance Metrics the only framework that pushes us to think comprehensively about that potential? No, but the Metrics do describe the different things that contribute to strong neighborhoods. Community plans are the scale where we can integrate these issues, and the plans help neighborhoods understand the dynamics that could be caused by any of these changes.
Across the city, the influx of new, large-scale housing has changed our markets dramatically. We’re hearing that the traditional rental housing market – which was one, two or three units – has gone soft. If prices for these units are decreasing, we have some affordability in the rental market but it’s not the newest, best housing stock, and many of those owners don’t accept housing vouchers. We have people who don’t have options, but technically, we have availability. So how do we close that loop? Who’s going to watch that? These are some of the areas where City agencies can help neighborhoods understand the challenging dynamics they are facing.
Downstream: Since launching Downstream, people have asked me for ways that they can get involved our housing situation, and I connect them to various places that work on fair housing. What is your advice for them?
Mondor: Housing is an important issue and it will benefit by having people involved in advocacy and system change. Getting involved in community planning and being intentional about creating diverse communities is important. There are also important things that people can do on the ground to create welcoming communities.
There are organizations that provide education. A fellow from my office is going through a NeighborWorks program, and they’re learning how communities work by looking at the Uptown neighborhood. It sounds like a really great program. Showing up to any civic-minded event and supporting civic discourse – which doesn’t mean supporting the project, necessarily – but being supportive of the discourse is half the battle. You don’t have to be an expert. None of us had much expertise when we started. We made it up as we went along, and now have a little bit of mileage to be able to see and predict things. In this sense, the race is really the prize.
Photo courtesy of Brian Cohen