Daniel Berkowitz strolls into Brew on Broadway, a coffee shop with an eclectic décor and an eclectic clientele, housed on the main drag of Beechview, a South Hills neighborhood to which most Pittsburghers don’t give a second thought.
Berkowitz is known here. He is greeted with a smile by the barista, Renée, as well as several of the customers, mostly lifelong Beechview residents who have come to the shop to talk politics with their neighbors
Brew on Broadway is conceptually about as far away from Starbucks as you can get: a nonprofit community-based coffeehouse whose proceeds are directed for the benefit of the Beechview community. It is the perfect place for Berkowitz, a member of the Squirrel Hill Jewish community, to set up shop and get to know the people who make up the fabric of the neighborhood that he, along with friend Ben Samson, is working to revitalize.
Samson, who is an architectural design professional, and Berkowitz, a real estate developer and former board member of The Jewish Chronicle, have partnered in creating Atlas Development Co., with the aim of breathing new life into this residential neighborhood that has seen its share of urban blight.
Berkowitz reached out to Samson after the latter’s master’s thesis proposing a mass transit plan for Allegheny County went viral. Although there has been no commitment from the city on implementing the $7 billion rehaul of the light-rail lines based on Samson’s proposal, the plan was enough to pique the interest of Berkowitz, who had his eyes on Beechview, which has the trolley running through its center.
“Beechview is the first residential neighborhood in the city of Pittsburgh heading south of the [existing] rail line,” Berkowitz said. “We consider Beechview the Brooklyn Heights or the Rosslyn, Virginia of Pittsburgh.”
In other words, the two men see a lot of potential in this sleepy community that happens to be only a 12-minute rail ride to downtown Pittsburgh, a quick trolley ride to the stadiums and convenient to the airport. Just this week, the Port Authority began work replacing the T rail line that runs through Beechview.
Berkowitz and Samson have put together a 181-page development plan for the neighborhood and have been working together along with community members “to figure out what the future can be,” Berkowitz said.
In doing so, he continued, they are heeding lessons learned from developers of other underachieving communities such as East Liberty “to be sure we are socially developing too.”
The potential in Beechview is huge, according to Berkowitz.
“We think we can add 3,500 residential units in the next 10 years and do it in a way that maintains the affordability and character of Beechview.”
The neighborhood has a lot to offer, he said. A three-bedroom, two-bath home with a garage and a driveway currently can be had in the neighborhood for about $65,000. The 2011 demographic TRID study showed that Beechview is the second safest neighborhood in Pittsburgh, with only Squirrel Hill beating it out. Beechview is also increasing its diversity, boasting one of the fastest growing Latino communities in the mid-Atlantic region.
“There are supermarkets and banks and a trolley,” Berkowitz added. “It’s honestly Squirrel Hill but with a trolley.”
Well, not quite yet.
Many buildings on Broadway Avenue remain empty and in disrepair. But Berkowitz is confident he and Samson can change all that. They are working to acquire properties and so far own three, one of which is an apartment building they have renovated and which is leased at full capacity. Another of their acquisitions will be the site of an Italian restaurant, with two apartments upstairs. Their third property will house a community radio station, and they are negotiating options for additional properties as well.
“Sixty percent of the neighborhood is under the age of 40,” Berkowitz said. “They come home from work, and there is nothing to do after work. We are going to try to activate the commercial district.”
That commercial district has been mostly stagnant for years, since Pittsburgh real estate developer Bernardo Katz bought up a lot of property in a plan to revitalize Beechview in the 1990s but then “absconded to Brazil in 2007, leaving the city, local banks and taxing authorities on the hook for millions,” Berkowitz said.
“This past fall, the city finalized the legal process and took ownership of the remaining Bernardo properties that had plagued the city for so long. Now this neighborhood won’t have any artificial reasons holding it back.”
At first, Berkowitz and Samson got a lot of pushback about their plan from skeptical locals who feared a replay of the Katz fiasco. But the two men are now embraced, according to Berkowitz, because they are taking the concerns of the community into account in their planning.
Jeff Mooney, a 41-year-old lifelong resident of Beechview, agrees.
“What he’s doing is awesome,” Mooney said of Berkowitz. “He’s doing a much better job than anybody I’ve seen before. I’m thinking things might change a bit now.”
“It’s a move in the right direction,” said Phyllis DiDiano, president of the Beechview Area Concerned Citizens.
Samson, who is also a Jewish resident of Squirrel Hill, is not yet ready to move to Beechview because of the lack of a Jewish community there. He is, however, enthused about his contributions to the neighborhood’s development.
“It’s a seven to 10-year plan,” Samson said. “We are working with the city to get the main street rezoned to make it a more walkable, livable place.”
Samson still has his day job, working at architect Arthur Lubetz’s Front Studio, but is all-in on the Beechview project as a partner of Berkowitz.
“This is a dream come true,” Samson said. “I get to work on something that I came up with in my studies.”
If Berkowitz has his way, the new Beechview won’t be different from the old Beechview, only amped up a few notches.
“We are not coming here just to make money at the expense of the community,” he said. “We want to keep the neighborhood the way it is, with its organic feel, but just turn up the volume. We’ve done our homework.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.