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Eyes on the street...no pane, no gain?

Written by Diana Nelson Jones on .

 The former Park View Cafe, arrow points to the wall under discussion. Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

Lawrenceville developer Bill Barron proposes bringing a Crazy Mocha to 2 E. North Ave., a corner building boarded up for at least two decades at one of the North Side’s busiest intersections — North Avenue and Federal Street.

He said he can be pretty quick about it, too, if the Urban Redevelopment Authority chooses his proposal. The URA has a "request for proposals" out now, to give others a chance at this property. Up until now, its biggest supporters have been the people lying against it in bedrolls.

If a coffeehouse replaced that stark blotch of blight, the neighborhood would have, besides a legal buzz, some warm evening light spilling from a doorway across to Allegheny Commons Park: What’s not to like about that?

At a recent meeting of the neighborhood council, several residents weighed in.

As it is now, the former Park View Cafe turns a cold shoulder on Federal Street, its brick wall windowless. Mr. Barron's design did not call for windows along Federal, and one resident asked why not. Why not wrap some windows around that wall to spread the warmth up Federal? he asked. Five or six people joined the chorus.

The building is one story but it used to be three and it bears the vertical Victorian ghost lines of windows past.

“The question was raised about possibly restoring them,” said Mr. Barron, “but it wouldn’t look right” because of the current scale, “and would have a pretty strong negative effect on the budget.”

Mr. Barron wants to restore the sweet old storefront, which has cast iron columns, and argues that the storefront would be a strong enough focus to improve that corner.

After the meeting, he said he would reconsider a side window of some sort after hearing the residents. “They made their case, and it does make sense. That’s a lot of solid brick wall. I think the side door could be opened up with side glass. That will be the accessible entrance. But it’s all speculative until I have control of the building.”

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The window as an eye, dare we say a smile, on the neighborhood is integral to the New Urbanist sensibility. It’s also intuitive. A well-lit window is more inviting than a wall of brick. Theory goes that a reflection of good social behavior inhibits anti-social behavior and the momentum of blight.

Across town, the Quiet Storm makes a good case for the windows theory.

It sits on a corner that once was as troubled as they come. At Penn Avenue and Graham Street, the Quiet Storm was a nuisance bar until 2000, when Friendship Development Associates (FDA) bought it. Across the street, the Horoscope Lounge was too. It closed from pressure by the district attorney’s office in 2006 after several shootings.

Ian Lipsky established the Quiet Storm cafe in 2001, and FDA gave him a facade grant to install windows. He replaced two small windows with window panels the entire length of Penn Avenue and part-way around Graham.

FDA’s motive was to “increase the eyes on the street,” said Sarah Collins DiLeo, spokesman for FDA, a neighborhood non-profit developer.

Thrown bricks have spider-webbed portions of the glass twice over the years — once by suspected anarchist wanna-bes  — but the rest of the time, they have had a come hither effect.

Windows are “a way to invite all the neighborhood in and to interest them,” said Jilly MacDowell, the Quiet Storm’s current owner. The gathering place started as a coffee shop and has become a restaurant. It caters to vegans, laptop users, groups, families and people who 40 years ago would have been called hippies. It is cozy, with a second-hand shop look, and has been credited with helping to ‘tip’ that corner. 

People inside can be part of “a live-action film outside,” said Ms. MacDowell. Today, the action is much less about gun shots and drug dealing. “Considering that was the only activity on that corner for some time, it [the Quiet Storm] was a beacon. Now when we look out, we see other businesses prospering. The Sprout Fund, Grow Pittsburgh and Friends of the Pittsburgh Urban Forest are all across the street now, with glass fronts.”

The former Horoscope is a pizza place, but its windowless facade hides whatever activity there may be inside.

If the proposed Crazy Mocha on North Avenue had its brick wall dressed up, say, with public art — a mural or sculpture —, as Mr. Barron recommends, would the lack of windows be that much of a factor? Could the coffee house tip that corner -- or even the entire commercial cluster -- without them?

What do you think? Here are a couple of opinions from Central Northsiders to get you buzzing:

John Canning, a neighborhood historian, said Mr. Barron’s “significant step at a neighborhood gateway” calls for “a visual connection between the interior of the coffee shop and Federal Street. I think there are advantages to a design that is visually open.”

Another resident, had a less exacting attitude: “After looking at that building for so many years, I would be delighted if there were lights on and jobs in there.”

Your turn:

Diana Nelson Jones
city neighborhoods reporter

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