South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

Hilltop Alliance Making History On The Hilltop

 

November 17, 2020

Over the last decade, the Hilltop Alliance has worked to create positive change throughout the 11 South Pittsburgh neighborhoods to which it provides services. But the story starts before the Alliance earned its 501(c)3 non-profit designation in 2010.

As early as 2006-07, Coro Center for Civic Leadership and the Program for Deliberative Democracy were holding multi-neighborhood community conversations with a goal of supporting a Federal Weed and Seed application and "create a new cohesiveness amongst the participating citizens and communities" according to a Southwestern Pennsylvania Program for Deliberative Democracy summary.

Out of one of the Everyday Democracy sessions that drew more than 140 Hilltop residents, state Representative Jake Wheatley suggested an umbrella organization. Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development (PPND), now Neighborhood Allies, expressed interest in funding a cooperative organization on the Hilltop.

At the time, community development funding organizations in the city weren't giving money to grass roots led efforts, often backing the same staffed organizations. Many of the funding organizations didn't understand the geography of the South Pittsburgh Hilltop neighborhoods in relation to the needs of the communities.

The decline of the South Hilltop neighborhoods wasn't precipitous as in other underserved city

neighborhoods -- it was continuous over decades. To many, it looked like bedroom communities, without the benefit of large economic generators such as employment centers.

At the time, and even now, the Hilltop neighborhoods were acting like first-tier suburbs.

Out of the Deliberative Democracy Community Conversations came the beginnings of the Hilltop Alliance. Initially, with capacity building help from PPND, community groups from across the Hilltop were brought together.

The first groups to come together were the: Allentown Community Development Corp., Beltzhoover Citizens Community Development Corp., Beltzhoover Neighborhood Council, Carrick Community Council, Hilltop Economic Development Corp., and the Mt. Oliver City/St. Clair Block Watch (now the Mt. Oliver City/St. Clair

Community Group).

The Board of Directors of the early Hilltop Alliance consisted of two representatives from

each of the member organizations.

The early days of the Alliance were focused on building capacity. PPND not only provided funding for the new organization, but also offered capacity building through its Champion Neighborhoods program.

Mark Bibro, executive director of the Birmingham Foundation, said the foundation also provided seed money for the new organization and acted as the fiduciary agent.

Through the Community Conversation process, the Alliance established action teams to address concerns in the neighborhoods: The Repurposing Vacant Property Action Team, a Public Safety Action Team, and a Community Services Coordination Action Team in addition to a Keeping Homes on the Hilltop Resource Center.

Early on, the Hilltop Alliance hired a staff member and utilized a side room in Brashear's Neighborhood Employment Center in Allentown. Board meetings were in the Mt. Oliver Borough Council Chambers, and community meetings spread throughout the Hilltop.

At the end of the decade, the Alliance had grown enough to hire its first executive director. With guidance from PPND, the Alliance hired Pat Murphy to lead the organization. In 2010 the HA was granted its 501(c)3 non-profit status.

Shortly after, in 2011, the Alliance outgrew the cramped space in Allentown and moved to new office space on Brownsville Road in Mt. Oliver.

Through Murphy's leadership, the Alliance took on a number of projects in addition to maintaining the original Action Teams. Early projects included establishing a website for the HA, publishing a human services directory and assisting the Mt. Oliver City/St. Clair Block Watch in placing a "Welcome to the Hilltop" sign at Mountain and Wagner streets.

It wasn't always smooth sailing for the Alliance. With strong personalities on the Board, there was high turnover in some member organizations and their representatives. In 2011 the funding organizations recommended the HA undergo a governance and by-law assessment. Through a self-evaluation process, the Alliance changed Board officers and operating procedures.

It was around the same time the Alliance switched community groups in Beltzhoover, to the Beltzhoover Civic Association. Other changes included only having one community group from a neighborhood represented on the Hilltop Alliance Board.

2012 was a big year for the organization. One of the more notable projects was the release of a draft of the Green Tool Box Assessment. The assessment performed by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and GTECH Strategies (now Grounded) to prioritize “greening” of the Hilltop neighborhoods.

That year, the Alliance also received a grant to undertake an Allentown and Beltzhoover housing strategy, which was needed in future years to apply for a Neighborhood Partnership Program (NPP) through the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED).

The HA also held its first Hilltop Summit, a gathering of community organizations to talk about successes in their neighborhoods. They also held the Youth Redefined Hilltop Youth L.E.A.D. Dialogue to Action, published the Hilltop Human Services & Community Programs Directory, and organized the Fresh Fridays on the Hilltop free produce distribution.

The organization also changed office locations again, moving out Brownsville Road several blocks to Knoxville.

The time was also right to expand membership with the addition of the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association and the Mt. Washington Community Development Corporation. The HA also began adding at-large Board members to allow the organization to “recruit” board members with particular needed skills.

Another year of change was coming up in 2013 when the Directors of the Hilltop Alliance decided to change “quarterbacks.” Early in the year, Aaron Sukenik was hired as the new executive director.

With a background in community development, Sukenik identified aspects of the Green Tool Box as one priority for the organization. The HA began a community process to support what would become the Hilltop Urban Farm, one of the nation’s largest urban farming projects.

Armed with the recently completed Allentown and Beltzhoover Housing Strategy, along with previously completed work by the Allentown CDC, the Hilltop Alliance applied for and was awarded a $250,000 per year NPP for six years, beginning in 2014. The NPP is a tax credit program through the DCED utilizing business partners receiving credit for contributions to the program.

The NPP facilitated a bump in programming and staff members, as well as a change in office space to larger quarters in Allentown.

Partnering with its member organizations, the Alliance began revitalizing the Allentown Business District, worked on a strategy for the Haberman Avenue corridor in Beltzhoover/Mt. Washington and a Master Plan for McKinley Park. The Property Stabilization Program was expanded to help keep Hilltop residents in their homes and work with neighbors on code violations.

In 2016, the HA expanded and contracted at the same time. The Knoxville Community Council was added as a member organization, the number of member representatives was reduced from two to one per organization, and the number of at-large Board members was increased to five from two.

Protecting and building on green space assets was also a priority with the Alliance assisting in the creation of the Friends of South Side Park.

Innovation has been a key to the Alliance’s success. Their Allentown Business District Rent Abatement Program has assisted more than 20 businesses get a foothold along Warrington Avenue. The Lots of Flowers program transformed 15 vacant lots into gardens throughout the Hilltop. And the annual Goatfest with the Friends of South Side Park has brought thousands of people into the park to see the goats and walk the trails.

The Alliance has also branched out into real estate, purchasing two commercial restaurant buildings in Allentown in an effort to keep affordable neighborhood-serving businesses in the community. In addition, HA has been working with partners to acquire vacant properties in Allentown to be renovated and offered at market rate.

The Alliance is also working with partners on funding the building of 30 new affordable homes in the “Grandview South,” north of E. Warrington Avenue.

In the past year, the organization spun-off the Hilltop Urban Farm into its own non-profit entity and also created a wholly owned sub-division, HA Development LLC, for real estate ventures.

Suzanne Niederberger Photos, a current and original Board member, credits the Alliance for giving her the confidence and skills to aid in the development of her member organization, the Mt. Oliver City/St. Clair Block Group.

Ms. Photos often says, “Who would have thought we would have come so far?” And in such a short period of time.

 

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