As I made my way down the corridor of Lawrenceville’s St. Mary’s Lyceum, the boisterous din emanating from the auditorium lifted my admittedly low expectations considerably.  Inside I was surprised by the full-capacity crowd, a cross-section of which, sliced any which way, gave the impression that the Lyceum had triple-booked hipster trivia night, a PTA meeting, and seniors’ bingo.

Before I found a seat in the last row I had exchanged a dozen handshakes and high-fives from a veritable Who’s Who of our Lawrenceville neighborhood – our City Councilman, neighborhood activists, residents and business owners.

As the hosts made their way to center stage, the electricity in the air was like that of a cockfight in the basement of a border town meatpacking plant.

That was 2012, and the forum for the assembly – Lawrenceville’s Responsible Hospitality – doesn’t seem like the kind of place where the forces of community development come to do battle; and on most occasions, it isn’t.  Convened as a joint-effort between Lawrenceville United (LU) and Lawrenceville Corporation (LC), this process provides a public forum for any new businesses that might operate with a liquor license, to provide transparency and proactively address community concerns.

Responsible Hospitality hardly sounds like a topic worth reading about, let alone writing about.  On its face, it lacks sex appeal, drama or scandal, and may even invoke a sensation of carving off a toe with a king of diamonds.  Beyond its humdrum moniker, however, Lawrenceville’s brand of hospitality not only offers many lessons in the art of managing neighborhood change, but may be the very thing that will hold this surging community steady, without holding it back.

Moreover, it represents a new tactic in an important – but often overlooked – facet of the ever-changing role of community-based organizations.  Beyond cutting ribbons and luring new development, many CBOs must take a proactive stance towards prospective businesses, even if it means saying no.  Upon closer examination, this reveals how indispensable many CBOs are to the dynamic region of Pittsburgh that can no longer be derided as being stuck in its glorious past.

This effort is even more significant when considering the full context.  Lawrenceville’s Responsible Hospitality process has been in place for a handful of years now, and has impacted over fifty businesses and other development projects.  The scope and breadth of these projects will be discussed later in this piece, along with concurrent efforts across the city to manage evolving social scenes, and culminating in the creation of a Nighttime Economy Manager for the City of Pittsburgh.

To begin, I’ll recount in fine, sometimes colorful detail the event I noted above, as it may have marked a turning point in the relationship between Lawrenceville and the community organizations that represent it.  I’ll close by touching upon the broader significance and learning opportunities for other communities that may wish to replicate or adapt Lawrenceville’s process.

Industrious Hospitality

Returning to St. Mary’s, the hosts called for our full attention, and we quieted accordingly.  What transpired was civil, even if pushing civility’s limits.

The night’s main event was the proposed Industry Grille, which had already been pre-determined by much of the community as an invading nightclub, lousy with cheap drinks, that would cram the streets and sidewalks with cars and boozy ne’er-do-wells.  Much of this judgment was a result of (and a pre-emptive strike against) the reputation of the ownership group behind this proposed establishment.  The group was connected to existing night clubs in the South Side neighborhood, against which were allegations of prostitution, over-occupancy violations and operating after hours.  An even graver concern, perhaps, was the residential rental portfolio of one of Industry’s partners.

“Will you have hoagies?”

The evening’s hosts, Matthew Galluzzo and Lauren Byrne (executive directors of LC and LU, respectively), welcomed the crowd, set the rules of engagement, and reminded us all of the basic tenets of decorum and decency, before introducing the spokesman of the ownership group, David Viszlay, whose name elicited a muffled chorus of accusations, insults and general heckling.

Mr. Viszlay, an army reservist who would be returning to active duty in Afghanistan before Industry would make its way through the City’s approval process, was composed and even-keeled, soft-spoken and courteous, as he walked the audience through his various architectural plans on display.  For me, some of what Mr. Viszlay had to say was drowned out by the continuous raspy chatter between two ladies seated behind me, with voices affected by both Pittsburghese and a certain smokiness.

One of them opined: “Well this is just great.  Frat boys…drunk on twenty-five cent beers… fightin’ in the streets.  That’s what we have to look forward to.”

Her friend coughed: “Mmm hmm.”

Concluding his presentation, Mr. Viszlay opened the floor for questions, and the lady behind me was one of the first to be called upon:  “How much your drinks gonna cost?”

Mr. Viszlay walked us through the drink menu: “Draft beers will start at about four dollars and fifty cents…”

This was more than the lady needed to hear.  Under her breath: “Four dollars! That’s just great.  A bunch of yuppies, parking their fancy cars all over the place, lookin’ down their noses at everybody…”

“Mmm hmm,” replied her friend.

Mr. Viszlay, along with his associate and sister, Danielle Viszlay-Walker, who rocked a newborn to and fro throughout the meeting, had essentially described their vision for an upscale restaurant and bar, and nothing resembling a club. They answered most questions about the space and menu directly, partly tempering the audience’s aggression, but evaded or deflected a volley of questions about other business dealings.

One man – a tough-looking tattooed thirty-something that I imagine few would want to trifle with – shook with rage as he decried Mr. Viszlay as a residential slumlord, whose tenants tormented local residents and made the man’s life “a living hell.”  For this he received a ovation.  A woman followed with similar accusations while waving several sheets of paper that she claimed documented hundreds of 911 calls to Mr. Viszlay’s properties.  Another ovation.  This was not a McCarthy-styled paper-flapping charade.  According to Ms. Byrne, Mr. Viszlay’s properties at that time represented less than one percent of rental units in Pittsburgh’s 10th Ward (Upper Lawrenceville), but were connected to eighty percent of its 911 calls.  That would soon change.

A local architect pressed Mr. Viszlay about what appeared to be a lack of commercial kitchen equipment he expected to see in an upscale restaurant.  Repeatedly he asked, “It’s called ‘Industry Grille‘ – will there be a grill?”  The architect was obliquely conveying that by not equipping a legitimate kitchen, this so-called upscale restaurant could be transformed into a nightclub overnight.

A much-needed comedic moment came in the form of discursive rambling from a young man who lamented, in great detail, the vast distance a vegetarian must travel to find a good hoagie.  When urged to pose a question, he finally asked, “Will you have hoagies?”  Mr. Viszlay scanned the audience for hints, and when finding none, said that the menu did not currently offer hoagies, but he would happily add them.

After two hours, the Q&A had been reduced to a calm and cordial tenor, and the crowd made for the exits, seemingly confident their voices were heard.  Most turbo-charged community meetings don’t end this way, and are often inflamed by one community group or another playing the heavy.  Throughout, LC and LU simply stayed out of it and in doing so they achieved something fairly remarkable: they created a forum for the community to show prospective investors what they would be up against, while leaving the door ajar and putting out the Welcome to Lawrenceville doormat.

For Industry, this would not be a matter of offering up a few concessions in the hopes of gaining the community groups’ blessings, nor a matter of persuading the zoning or liquor control boards they were meeting the letter of the law.  Industry would need to satisfy the collective demands of two hundred plus residents, organized and informed, who could mobilize to oppose the venture at every turn and drag it out indefinitely.

“911 calls went from eighty percent to almost zero.”

Mr. Galluzzo had anticipated some anger, as it was the first time many residents had the chance to talk with Mr. Viszlay face to face, but was surprised by the turnout of nearly 250 people.  At that point he added that it was his and Byrne’s (and an on-duty police officer’s) responsibility to simply give everyone a chance to speak their mind while making sure that nothing got out of hand..

For LC and LU, staying above the fray was precisely the right thing to do, as their work was just beginning.  Soon after, LC and LU negotiated an Conditional License Agreement (CLA) with Mr. Viszlay that they believed would satisfy community concerns, meet neighborhood goals, and ultimately support private business development.

This agreement, which would be submitted as a binding condition of Industry’s application to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB), was not predicated on vague articles of good faith, but on highly detailed specifications.  The agreement detailed how the kitchen would be equipped, what it would serve, how it would be staffed and at what hours it would be open.  Similarly, seating capacity and even the types of tables were spelled out, along with minimum drink prices.  There were even restrictions on the ways that Industry would be permitted to advertise drink specials in advertisements and on sidewalk signboards.  Violations to the terms of the CLA would be, in essence, a violation to the state liquor code, and could prevent the license from being renewed in the future.

In the summer of 2012, Industry Public House opened its doors, and since then has been mostly full or packed to the gills on many nights of the week.  A quick scan of our neighborhood Nextdoor online community board reveals varying attitudes towards the place, but nothing that speaks to any sort of the malfeasance many feared.  It’s upscale in a non-swanky, post-industrial kind of way, which is reflected by a menu that offers everything from pot roast sliders to vegan risotto, to lots of things accompanied by wild boar bacon.  As for the drink menu, Industry offers dozens of craft beers on tap and nearly seventy-five whiskeys.  I’ll leave restaurant reviews to the pros (except to note the one pledge Mr. Viszlay failed to deliver on: no hoagies).

It is futile to look back and wonder if the Viszlays’ original intent and vision for Industry was threadbare compared to the textured, and reasonably sophisticated place it turned out to be.  Regardless, Mr. Viszlay came to the neighborhood with a dreadful track record lashed to his ankle.  The hospitality process gave the community the opportunity to show their resolve, and they did (and then some); while giving investors the same opportunity to earn the community’s trust, and they did (more or less).

Industry is not for everyone  but a fairer outcome I can scarcely imagine.  The process established recourse for the neighborhood, which could make misery for the owners in response to any egregious misstep along the way; but that hasn’t happened.  In fact, Industry went through the community process again a year later, seeking support for an expansion of their dining area and kitchen, which was granted without much of a stir.  (I was unable to obtain comments from the Viszlays for this story.)

Ms. Byrne was not surprised by this outcome, but surprised by a tangential turn of events.   Mr. Viszlay started a dialogue with the neighborhood organizations pertaining to the residential properties that evoked such hostility from much of the community. He formalized leases, implemented a better screening process for tenants, brought his family to neighborhood events, such as National Night Out, and contributed time and money to a local tree park.  All the markings of a silver lining, but I asked Ms. Byrne if this good will impacted the overwhelming proportion of 911 calls that had been connected to Mr. Viszlay’s properties.  “In the past two years, [911 calls] went from eighty percent to almost zero,” she said.

I asked her to repeat that because such a dramatic transformation is simply unheard of.  I heard correctly.

Beyond Industry

Lawrenceville didn’t invent the community-based hospitality approach to business or real estate development, of course, and there have been a variety of precursors to it in other neighborhoods, such as the South Side Neighborhood Planning Forum.  In fact, this hospitality process has replaced Lawrenceville’s standing Planning Committee, which was established and charged with serving as the steward for the neighborhood’s first community plan, completed in 2004.  Staffed by a member of the City’s planning department, the Planning Committee was quite formal: it had its own bylaws and used delegates from three neighborhood groups to vote on behalf of their constituents.  In other words, a representative democracy.

In contrast, Responsible Hospitality is more of an act of direct democracy. Although the details often need to be negotiated behind the scenes, LC and LU act upon the will of the community as it plays out in a public forum.

Critics of this new form of engagement seem to be few, but one former Planning Committee member told me that the new hospitality process is inferior.  Lost is the continuity that existed from project to project, along with the collective knowledge and expertise that elected delegates could bring to the table for every project.

Mr. Galluzzo and Ms. Byrne acknowledged this, but countered that the hospitality process is more effective because it’s not one step removed from their constituents.  Rather than ensuring equal representation through delegates from across the entire Lawrenceville neighborhood, this hospitality process draws those who will be most impacted by new developments, even if those participants never attend another hospitality meeting.

Another criticism is that Lawrenceville’s new process of localized engagement has supplanted deliberate long-term planning.  The Lawrenceville Community Plan has not been comprehensively updated during the decade following its creation.  Some residents raised concerns that the neighborhood is no longer committed to the types of planning that put it on its successful trajectory, and remains in a reactionary state.  Here, comparisons are drawn to the South Side, where it’s been argued that planning ceased after South Side Works was developed, and Carson Street fell into a reactionary mode, yielding to the whims of market forces.

“South Side serves as a cautionary tale for regional conversations about community revitalization.”

This phenomenon speaks to a broader and more complicated economic dynamic.  Still characterized as a weak-market city, Pittsburgh’s communities and agencies are often charged with the challenge of creating market pressure where none exists.  When successful, public and philanthropic subsidies subsequently decline and are replaced by increasing levels of private investment, there are fewer strings attached and less community control can be exerted to achieve a specific outcome.  In rapidly developing neighborhoods like Lawrenceville, East Liberty and elsewhere, this dynamic will only grow in the years ahead.

Another key aspect of Lawrenceville’s current process is that every new or existing business that seeks approval for a new (or renewed) liquor license is vetted through this process.  It’s a voluntary process, but necessary if a business seeks the community organizations’ support.  No one business or real estate endeavor is singled out or subjected to higher standards, because of reputation or any other reason.  Every business plays by the same rules and on a level field.

This process does not always secure the desired outcome, as evidenced by the conflicted community response to a proposed establishment, Alchemy n’ Ale.  The concept of a new gastropub whet the community’s appetite, but again, the ownership group behind it gave the neighborhood (to borrow from Steinbeck) a case of the howling skitters. Along with former City Councilman Patrick Dowd, LC and LU opposed the transfer of a liquor license to Alchemy on the grounds that its manager was not suited for the job.

Three short months later, while the application was still pending, the manager was under attack.  His assailant was neither a dissatisfied neighbor nor a biting food critic, but a hard-charging suburban elected official who sought not to bring down the business because of code violations or the like, but to bring down the owner himself – with a two-by-four.  His grievous indigestion has nothing to do with Alchemy’s lobster roll, but everything to do its owner’s pimping and drug dealing, or so he alleged.

Only after the manager was removed from the application did the organizations hammer out a CLA that would satisfy community concerns.  The PLCB denied Alchemy’s application, however, and it closed permanently a short time later.

Beyond Lawrenceville

In case you haven’t heard, lots of things are going right for Lawrenceville these days.  Real estate and business market forces have been surging for years now; a phenomenon that coincided with the peace-making of long-feuding community organizations that changed leadership and embraced a new paradigm.

Yet, Lawrenceville’s efforts are part of a larger story.  Other neighborhoods are presently crafting their own brand of hospitality, and some have been at it for a long while.  With the help of a new citywide effort to understand the value of Pittsburgh’s nighttime economy, many other neighborhood organizations will undertake a similar journey in the near future.

On the city’s Northside, Mark Fatla, Executive Director of Northside Leadership Conference (NSLC), described to me how various Northside neighborhoods have been addressing these issues for many years.  Northside business districts are scattered, and because their primary challenges come from existing establishments (as opposed to incoming ones), they take on hospitality issues on a case-by-case basis, rather than in the systematic ways of Lawrenceville.

Their approach might best be described as aggressively laissez-faire, and this hands-off strategy has served them well thus far, Mr. Fatla said.  When a problem arises, NSLC can intervene aggressively by harnessing community pressure and coordinating with city and state agencies to pursue options ranging from closing a business down, to reform measures that can bring the business back in line with community expectations.

Mr. Fatla shared many insights about the difficulties and unintended consequences of operating with too heavy a hand, which again speaks to the complex role community organizations play, especially tenured ones.

Even in instances of serious transgressions, such as a shooting, Mr. Fatla explained why marching towards shuttering the business or labeling it a “nuisance bar” may be the wrong move, especially if the incident is an isolated one.  A bar owner, for example, has many responsibilities, but the behavior of every patron is not one of them.

When a business is host to a pattern of illicit activities, they enter into a gray area.  Even then, Mr. Fatla notes, the PLCB and judges are often loath to take away a person’s livelihood when it’s not absolutely clear that they have direct responsibility for criminal behavior within their establishment.  Often the owner has a family that is dependent upon the business, which when shut down may create another set of societal problems.  Rather, Mr. Fatla maintains that the process should be about setting up “reasonable hurdles.”

JR’s Bar on East Ohio Street illustrates the need for a balanced carrot-and-stick approach.  Instances of serious crimes had been connected to JR’s customers for years.  The owner’s decision to relocate the bar to another storefront necessitated a liquor license transfer that opened the door for NSLC to intervene.  NSLC negotiated a Community License Agreement with JR’s and the PLCB that specified the need for security cameras, private security and other conditions.  JR’s complied and didn’t make the news for some time.

Before long, however, two shootings occurred inside and outside of JR’s, with one fatality, at which point the bar entered the gray area to which Mr. Fatla referred.  JR’s owners cooperated with the ensuing investigations, were not implicated in the violence, and recommitted to both NSLC and the PCLB to proactively address future problems.  Since then they have done that, and thus it’s difficult to argue that the owners have not met the reasonable hurdles set up for them, or that their license should be revoked.

Mr. Fatla’s point of view is largely aligned with that of Josette Fitzgibbons, the Neighborhood Business District Manager for the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh.  Referring to revocations of liquor licenses, she said, “It’s a black hole.”  Even in ostensibly obvious cases of negligence, there is a long, costly process of legal theatrics and appeals.  This is one reason that Ms. Fitzgibbons endorses the work of national Responsible Hospitality Institute (RHI) and their partnership with various organizations and agencies in Pittsburgh.

Last year, Mayor Peduto’s administration created a Nighttime Economy Manager position, whose primary responsibility is to implement the recommendations of the Responsibility Hospitality Institute.  This currently vacant position will likely be filled next month.  The manager’s focus will be four Pittsburgh neighborhoods, including Lawrenceville, from tools and strategies will be developed, then tailored and adapted to other city neighborhoods.

Ultimately, this hospitality focus represents our city’s ability to learn from itself, particularly from the South Side.  A neighborhood of many firsts, the South Side became one of the nation’s earliest federally designated historical main streets after its roughly twenty-block long business district could no longer hide its sixty percent vacancy rate in the post-industrial era of the mid-eighties. By 2005, vacancies were reduced to less than five percent.

During the day, the shops, galleries and neighborhood services render South Side’s Carson Street with a quirky diversity of uses.  By nightfall something of an alcohol fed monoculture sets in that has significantly contributed to the downgraded quality of life, leaving many to conclude that the once great South Side community has been lost.  Yet on any given weekend, one can find, by the thousands, purveyors and consumers of Carson Street’s nightlife who say otherwise, as well those who buy and sell South Side’s high-dollar real estate.

We want to be the next South Side!  I have yet to meet one person who has uttered those words.  South Side serves as a cautionary tale for regional conversations about community revitalization, especially given that it’s where the city’s responsible hospitality strategies were born and later honed, some of which have proved ineffective over time.

Admittedly, it requires much resolve to observe the vibrancy of a street like Carson that is lined by handsome historic facades and not feel some level of attraction.  No one set out to make Carson Street what it has become, but the allure of new establishments that renovate storefronts and sign long-term leases can be an intoxicatingly slippery slope.

It is with the South Side in mind that Lawrenceville remains vigilant and other districts remain alert with respect to mounting development and nightlife pressure.  If South Side pioneered neighborhood hospitality in Pittsburgh, these neighborhoods represent hospitality v. 2.0.  While many other communities and the Nighttime Economy Manager have much to learn from the best practices brought forth by a national Responsible Hospitality Institute, hospitality v. 3.0 ought to adopt the “Buy Local” philosophy.