In his books The Rise of the Creative Class and Cities and the Creative Class, the often-discussed sociologist Richard Florida makes arguments for renewing traditional cities. Cities, he says, can attract the best workers of the 21st century by developing workplaces with character, adaptively reusing historic or just old architecture in traditional, walkable neighborhoods. Many observers point out that Jane Jacobs recommended such grass-roots renewal in her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Florida, meanwhile, departed urban Pittsburgh to teach, oddly enough, at the decidedly suburban George Mason University in Virginia, leaving people to wonder just who might put their money where his mouth was.
Regardless of the origins of the general approach, Pittsburgh's Cool Space Locator is quite literally a prime mover in the back-to-the-neighborhoods campaign. The unconventional not-for-profit real-estate placement company has a mission to match small businesses with underutilized and underappreciated local properties that can be converted into appealing workspaces. Invariably, the group brings young people to old buildings, addressing the precise need over which so many local politicians wring their
hands. Its recently announced awards program shows that its approach is achieving results and gaining momentum.
Cool Space Locator addresses a market that has been underappreciated because many of the clients have been just too small for more conventional real-estate or leasing agents to find them worthwhile. Likewise, the process of making an out-of-date building into an appealing office environment can also be daunting in both physical and bureaucratic requirements. "It is as challenging to unearth the owner of a derelict space as it is to get a client to see the potential of that space," says Kilolo Luckett, CSL's placement director. And yet the organization was founded because three of Pittsburgh's community development corporations, along with partner organizations and supporting foundations, saw the need. Small businesses wanted to move into abandoned buildings in their neighborhoods; they just needed help to make it happen. And Pittsburgh as a city desperately needed another useful tool to redevelop struggling neighborhoods more sensibly.
Now, after five years in business, Cool Space Locator is ready both to
celebrate its successes and expand the reach of its message. The group has
worked with more than 200 companies thus far, and wants to continue its growth. But the program is equally about approach and philosophy. "This is an opportunity to market our service, but also to let people know, 'You can participate. You can choose this,'" says Kyra Straussman, who co-founded the organization with Deborah Baron.
What makes a space cool? "It's hard to define, but we know it when we see it," Straussman allows. Actually, the award-winners suggest a more palpable definition. While judges shied from traditional awards-program elements of flashy design and squeaky-clean building operation, there are still commonalities. Most projects benefit from the open-airiness often found in reused industrial buildings. Plenty of them have the palpable sense of creativity that comes when a structure changes its purpose, but does not erase its history. Perhaps most important, though, is the sense of neighborhood revitalization when a new tenant means a new lease on life for an old structure.
A place such as James Simon's sculpture studio on Gist Street in Uptown/Soho brings vitality through its use and its contents, not through major new construction, though Simon's signature light-hearted sculptures are quite apparent. The brick warehouse with timber-framed structure is an ideal artist's studio with plenty of natural light. But the energy clearly appealed to a broad spectrum of jurors, including former County Executive Jim Roddey. "It's a creative cluster. It invites the public in to the space, and into the Uptown neighborhood. It opens the neighborhood to the public," he commented.
The awards themselves are about energizing neighborhoods by making them
more useful and accessible. CSL received more than 100 entries, more than it expected, and gave out more awards than would fit in this space (see www.coolspacelocator.com). Straussman is very pleased with the results, describing the recent awards reception as "our coming-out party." Really, though, as the movement to return to the neighborhoods continues, the party is for coming back in.