Design Center has project consultants to help Hilltop residents


Enhancing community appearance, livelihood and safety in Allentown were the main discussion points at the Allentown CDC meeting last Thursday night.

In its first bi-monthly meeting of the year, board members and guests addressed new and ongoing renovation projects before closing with some housecleaning on administrative matters.

The meeting began with an informal presentation from Cate Rassman, Community Programs Coordinator with Design Center. Ms. Rassman explained Design Center’s Design Consults Program (formerly known as RENPLAN) is a 17-year-old enterprise which advocates accessible professional design services by bringing said services to neighborhoods, small businesses and non-profits at a comfortable cost and on an approachable basis.

Utilizing a bevy of 106 local architects, interior designers and landscape architects, Design Center coordinates personalized project consultations and advice on a sliding-scale fee schedule, which Ms. Rassman said is based on an honor system.

“For residential [area] consultations, the price ranges from $25 to $250, based on what the client honestly believes they can afford,” she stated. “Regardless of what you pay, you’ll get the same level of service and quality of program outcome.”

At the bottom line, the fee gets clients a consultation of up to two hours on site and a written project action plan that provides a “renovation roadmap” taking into consideration factors like phasing, feasibility, strategic investments, aesthetic value and permit/code issues.

Whether a client is looking to start a new project or reassess one currently in progress, and whether it’s looking to reconfigure its existing footprint or to expand, Ms. Rassman said Design Center’s services can be very beneficial to any small group looking to understand where its property is, where it could be, and how to get it there.

Removing guesswork, addressing regulatory concerns and “getting the most bang for your buck” were the benefits Ms. Rassman most thoroughly expounded. Other pluses mentioned included helping clients work within their budgets and preparing them for application for public renovation grants and/or funding.

Returning to the matter of fees, Ms. Rassman noted the fee arrangement covers only the consultation and written action plan, and places no obligation on the client to use the program consultant for any additional services. The client may, however, elect to do so, by initiating an outside agreement beyond the scope of Design Center’s core services.

Of course, Ms. Rassman offered in conclusion, the first decision a group must make is whether or not it would like to be a Design Center client—and, it is that very decision that the Allentown CDC board will consider in wake of Ms. Rassman’s presentation, and revisit at its next regular meeting in April.

Moving from one renovation topic to another, board member Greg Panza updated his CDC colleagues on the status of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh (AIP) project already underway at the former Bud’s Hardware on Warrington Avenue.

Mr. Panza reminded everyone AIP recently selected Bud’s as the site for its annual hands-on project, giving interior design and environmental design students the chance to analyze a “real space” and present renovation proposals as part of their senior projects.

“They’ve been out to the building, taken measurements and studied the neighborhood,” said Mr. Panza. “They’re working on proposals on how to improve and better use the empty space, which the property owner is very likely to consider.”

An experienced professional designer and steadfast Allentown enthusiast, Mr. Panza stated he has volunteered to consult with the AIP students regarding their proposals, and was scheduled to appear at AIP to give feedback on Friday.

Mr. Panza next broached the Warrington Avenue business district safety initiative, which encourages Allentown business-owners to improve the safety of their properties by installing or upgrading common safety implements such as lighting, fencing and security cameras.

The initiative operates on a matching system, whereby the business-owner pays a percentage of renovation costs which are matched by available funds.

“Every approved business-owner gets an equal percentage, not to exceed $2,000,” Mr. Panza commented.

In 2012, 17 businesses participated in the initiative, and each received a funding grant of 45 percent of their relative total project cost. Mr. Panza said he is hoping to get six to eight new participants this year, even though available funds are a little tighter this time around.

These safety improvements, Mr. Panza elaborated, would group well with the storefront renovation, street repaving and greening/beautification projects slated to take shape in Allentown over the next few months.

As far as greening and beautification, Mr. Panza said mulching, shrub maintenance and planting perennials are on the agenda, and he issued a call for volunteers to participate in a mid-May greening.

Board member Anabell Kinney also issued a call for volunteers, encouraging interested persons to participate in the Friends of Grandview Park’s upcoming Park Clean-Up on April 30. Helpers can kick back and enjoy a pizza party after assisting the group with the removal of broken and discarded glass from the park.

Ms. Kinney assured everyone thick gloves and heavy-strength bags will be provided to protect participants from the sharp glass.

Yet another call for volunteers came from board member Jessica Zembower, who indicated Pittsburgh’s city-wide Spring Redd-Up is scheduled for April 30.

Volunteers will also be needed, for the March 23 clean-up event Ms. Zembower went on to reference—a Pitt Football Clean-Up Program, which will bring approximately 80 University of Pittsburgh football players who’ve volunteered to clean up several Hilltop communities.

Ms. Zembower remarked she hopes around 20 of the athletes will be assigned specifically to Allentown clean-up.

CDC vice president Judy Hackel had a thing or two to say about cleaning up the streets in Allentown—though she was referring to crime, not trash. Ms. Hackel explained there are as many as six new security cameras coming to Allentown, to deal with, target and deter criminal behavior in the area.

Three of those cameras may be obtained through a security camera program. These high-resolution, weather-proof units will be mounted on poles and/or traffic lights along Warrington Avenue, the exact locations of which the board will leave to the discretion of the Zone 3 Police Department.

While these cameras will not feed in to the police station, the still-shots they snap will be saved on a memory card that can be removed and read when needed.

The three other cameras will feed in to the police station, as they are police-issue equipment, and will be placed on or around Beltzhoover Avenue.

In other news, Ms. Kinney announced the Allentown CDC will be working in conjunction with the Mt. Oliver City/St. Clair Village Block Watch to host a “Meet the Candidates” night, where mayoral candidates will be invited to discuss platform issues and answer citizens’ questions.

The event will be held at St. John Vianney Church at 6:30 p.m. on Thurs., March 21, and will be open to the public at large.

Those in attendance at Thursday’s meeting didn’t have to wait to meet another set of candidates. Allentown CDC board members Jessica Zembower, Ken Wolfe and Anabell Kinney were up for re-election that night. Each member was unanimously voted in for another term.

In a final administrative matter, the board adopted a new set of bylaws. Ms. Kinney summarized the new bylaws consisted primarily of terminology clarifications and revisions to out-of-date internal regulations governing things like compensation and conflict of interest.


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