On a particularly chilly evening in February, about 14 residents are gathered in the basement of the Church of the Holy Cross in Homewood. It has all the usual trappings of a neighborhood meeting: plastic folding chairs, linoleum floors, drop ceilings and some sandwiches spread across a table in the corner — an incentive to show up despite the elements.
But what's going on at this meeting is hardly typical. After a several-minute crash course in urban planning, Operation Better Block (OBB) asks Homewood residents to put aside differences and re-think their neighborhood, one property at a time.
"There are people in the community who want to be involved in what's happening," explains OBB executive director Jerome Jackson. "But no one has really made it accessible to them."
That's changing, Jackson says. Over the past year-and-a-half, OBB has invested in an ambitious "cluster planning" process in which Homewood residents are responsible not only for coming up with a detailed plan for revitalizing their neighborhood, but are also charged with making sure those plans don't sit on a shelf collecting dust.
Just outside the church on Kelly Street, it's obvious change is needed: There are overgrown vacant lots next to boarded-up houses, and slabs of sidewalk that have gone unmaintained and have erupted into the air, like warring tectonic plates. A few blocks away next to a crumbling stoop, a sign reads: "STOP SHOOTING Live Love Respect."
These are symptoms of larger problems, but OBB isn't looking to rehash the challenges everyone already knows about. They're asking people — who have been invited because they all live within a few blocks — to roll up their sleeves and try to reach consensus on everything from what property should be demolished to where a new playground might succeed.
It's a painstaking process. From January 2014 to summer's end, OBB will have held roughly 30 community meetings, drawn up more than a dozen different land-use plans and knocked on every door in the neighborhood for input at least three times. They will have formed roughly 10 distinct "cluster associations," each responsible for carrying out its section of the neighborhood's consensus plan.
The process, which cost roughly $63,000 not including OBB staff time, was largely funded through the Richard King Mellon foundation, while the Pittsburgh Foundation contributed funds for an original effort to survey each of the neighborhood's properties, says Demi Kolke, who is leading the cluster-planning project. She notes that all of the cluster plans have been completed except one.
But not everyone in the neighborhood is on board. OBB is facing some skepticism from other community groups and residents, some of whom feel like they never agreed to OBB's approach and shouldn't be bound by its "consensus." And even among those who support the process, concerns linger about whether developers and property owners, including the city, will pay much attention to it.
"The confusion comes with the residents when they hear they're supporting something and all they know is that they participated and they signed an attendance sheet," says Dina Blackwell, co-founder and CEO of the Homewood Renaissance Association. Just "because you're in attendance, doesn't mean you agreed."
Still, almost everyone acknowledges the neighborhood is going to change; the question is how much control residents will have over it.
"The development is coming," says Emmett Wilson, who has attended OBB's cluster-planning meetings and points to its easy access to the busway and flat terrain. "They're preparing Homewood for change ... I'd just like to see the residents involved."