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Neighborhood activists promote Allentown's affordability, accessibility

Give me an 'A'

Sunday, July 06, 2003

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When the Pittsburgh International Youth Hostel opened in a renovated bank building on Warrington Avenue in 1997, some people thought it might help to transform Allentown's commercial corridor from tired to trendy.

That didn't happen.

Warrington Avenue has some bright spots, including the new expanded headquarters of Herman J. Heyl Florists and Greenhouses, and Alla Famiglia, a tiny upscale Sicilian restaurant. It also has a solid mix of basic services: a grocery store, hardware store, pharmacy, bakery, photo studio and new video store.

But the three-block stretch has several vacant storefronts and the neighborhoods around it have numerous absentee landlords. There's an undercurrent of crime, evidenced by prostitutes and drug dealers who frequent the avenue.

The youth hostel isn't doing well, either.

"The hostel is invisible," said Bob Heyl, manager of the florist shop and son of Herman J. Heyl, who founded the business about 48 years ago and recently consolidated the company's headquarters there.

Judy Hackel, president of the Allentown Civic Association, said some people thought the hostel would spur development of fancy coffee shops, pubs and restaurants that appeal to international visitors. Instead, there were fewer visitors than expected. And those who came to the youth hostel got on the trolley or a bus and went to the South Side to spend their money.

"The neighborhood didn't do for the youth hostel and the hostel didn't do for the neighborhood," Hackel said.

Tom Hardy, president of the board of the Pittsburgh Council of Youth Hostels, blamed some of the problems on the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which curtailed the numbers of international visitors everywhere.

At its peak, the hostel had close to 4,500 overnight stays, but now it's down to 3,000 annually, Hardy said.

He said the board was looking at the possibility of downsizing the hostel, which now has about 50 beds, and renting out some of the extra space. More than $1.3 million in private and public money was used to renovate the old bank so the hostel could open.

"We are looking at different alternatives," Hardy said.

His interest in Warrington Avenue and the Allentown neighborhood goes beyond heading the board of the Pittsburgh youth hostel. In his professional position as real estate manager for the South Side Local Development Corp., Hardy is leading an effort to build homes on Beltzhoover Avenue and Climax Street, a block from Warrington.

Four houses have been demolished at the site and eight houses should be under construction by fall, he said. Some will be sold at market rate. Others will be priced for families with limited incomes.

Members of the Heyl family hadn't heard about the proposed housing but said new investment around Warrington Avenue was needed.

In recent years, the family bought and tore down several rundown properties on Warrington, including a bar, and built a three-story building that now is the headquarters of their business. The first floor has a showroom and refrigerated rooms for storing fresh flowers. Upstairs is space for the production of silk floral arrangements and Christmas items.

The company has shops in Pleasant Hills, Upper St. Clair and Ross, but Allentown has always been home.

"We have deep roots here," said Al Heyl, Herman's brother, adding that he and much of the family grew up in the neighborhood or nearby in Mount Oliver.

High on a hill above the South Side, Allentown abuts Mount Washington. From Warrington, it's about seven minutes to Downtown on the 52 Allentown trolley, the neighborhood's direct mass-transit link to the Golden Triangle. The Port Authority also runs buses to Allentown.

Port Authority spokeswoman Judi McNeil said the Allentown light rail line not only serves the hilltop commercial district, but also gives the Port Authority a detour route when it is repairing the Mount Washington transit tunnel used by all other light rail vehicles traveling into the city.

The Allentown trolley is not heavily used. Its average weekday ridership was 607 and average Saturday ridership was 256 in 2002.

"We used to run it on Sundays because the youth hostel came to us and requested that we run it on Sundays," McNeil said. "But nobody used it."

Hackel said Allentown, with Mount Oliver, will have its first FLUX, a roving art party celebrating cultural diversity, on Nov. 1. FLUX events are held regularly and randomly in urban sites in transition.

Her organization also has a new marketing plan and is trying to brand all of Allentown as "A-Town" -- affordable, available and accessible and an alternative.

"So many people don't know where Allentown is," Hackel said. "Our selling point, even more so than Carson Street, is that we have the best location in the city.

"We are trying to attract young professionals, architects, attorneys who can't afford the rents Downtown," she said. "We are one trolley ride into Pittsburgh."

Like Carson Street, Warrington Avenue has a Schwartz Market, a full-service grocery store. It has the 101-year-old Amsler Pharmacy, where owner and chief pharmacist George Norkus mails out prescriptions to loyal customers as far away as Tidioute in Warren County and calls his customers to see how they are feeling.

"To me, it is all about service," said Norkus, standing behind his counter one recent sunny day. "Delivery is part of our service. We deliver prescriptions countywide" and mail them even farther.

There's now only one bar left in the business district.

In May, arson destroyed a two-story apartment, an empty row house and a three-story building with Risinger's Bar on the ground level at Warrington and Walter Street. Last week, demolition crews cleaned the site.

In the heart of the Warrington Avenue business district is the Richard S. Caliguiri Senior High Rise, a popular apartment building for elderly people living on fixed incomes.

Senior citizens living there can easily walk to the grocery, hardware, pharmacy and a Family Dollar store.

Also nearby are churches and the Allentown Senior Citizen Center, which operates out of a Methodist church on Warrington.

"There is so much positive that I refuse to dwell on the negative," said Marilyn Kautz, service coordinator for the senior citizen center. She has worked in Allentown for 23 years.

Kautz, who chairs the public safety committee, said crime was the one issue that needs to be addressed. City crime statistics for Allentown indicate that major crimes like robbery and burglary increased from 177 in 2000 to 266 in 2002.

"We are meeting with the city's weed-and-seed people," Kautz said. "It is a problem for the whole community. We are going to deal with Warrington Avenue."

Jan Ackerman can be reached at jackerman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1370.

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