Each neighborhood in District 7 knows what it wants.
And what it doesn’t want — national chain after national chain or for its main street to be like any other main street in the city, City Council member Deborah Gross said.
To do that, Gross said it’s all about affordability.
Both for residents and for small business owners.
“It goes hand-in-hand,” she said, adding that it’s easier for people to live in a neighborhood if it also has a dentist, child care and a grocery store. “If you lose those, and they all become Ann Taylors or Banana Republics, then you’ve lost the livability of the neighborhood.”
One service that Gross wants to see more of is child care — something she’s worked on with other women on the city council. She said it’s difficult to find places to rent for a child care business, because it comes with low profit margins, but families need it. The day she met with The Incline, Gross said she also approached two local building owners about renting to child care businesses. The local owners have more of an emotional stake in the neighborhoods, she said.
For the seventh installment of our nine-part Meet City Council, The Incline met Gross at DiAnoia’s Eatery in her district to chat affordability, community projects and what makes her neighborhoods unique. This Q&A is part of that conversation, edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Deborah Gross: 101
First elected to council: 2013 to fill the seat vacated by former council member Patrick Dowd, who left his seat to become executive director of the nonprofit Allies for Children. She was elected to her first full term in 2015.
Next City Council election: 2019
District 7 includes: Bloomfield, Friendship, Highland Park, Lawrenceville, Morningside, Polish Hill, Stanton Heights and Strip District. See the map.
Q: What is your favorite part about living in District 7?
A: “I love that my district is full of volunteers on every corner, so there’s everything from garden clubs to neighborhood organizations to little leagues,” Gross said.
She said people volunteer just to better their block and neighborhoods and that includes longtime neighborhood traditions like the Lawrenceville Memorial Day parade and the Bloomfield Halloween parade.
“That’s a lot of labor of love for many years,” she said.
Q: What should all Pittsburghers do in District 7?
A: Get out and walk, Gross said.
There are too many things to list, she said, adding that “40 new businesses opened on Butler Street alone in the last three years.” But the district is full of walkable neighborhoods with history and “architectural gems.” She said the easiest things to point to are the trendy main streets like those in the Strip District or Lawrenceville. Part of the charm in District 7 is the mix of residential and commercial buildings together, she said.
“Sometimes you can’t put your finger on that,” she said. “You don’t know what’s so exciting and why you want to get out of your car and walk around.”
Q: What is the biggest issue facing District 7?
A: “Affordability. Affordability across the board,” Gross said.
That includes residential affordability — especially in neighborhoods like Lawrenceville, where some property values have gone up tenfold — and affordability for small business owners. She said the development around main streets is impacting small businesses who are worried about rising rents.
“This isn’t something that’s being talked about across the city, but we really feel it in District 7,” Gross said.
It becomes a question of how does the city support and invest in those businesses so they are there for tomorrow, she said, adding that the small businesses are what people value and want to live close to.
“It wouldn’t be the Strip District or Bloomfield or Lawrenceville if it was all Starbucks and Panera,” she said.
Gross said she wonders if the same tools that are used to help maintain residential affordability — like a land trust — could be used for commercial affordability. Another idea she said she’s working on is for an investment fund to help maintain the 100-year-old commercial buildings in the Strip District.
Q: What do you wish more people knew about District 7?
A: “One of the things that every one of my neighborhoods values is having an income mix of residents,” Gross said.
And she said that’s one of the challenges: “How do we not lose that mix?”
Residents chose their neighborhoods because they want diversity, and it’s a concern when they see it rapidly changing, she said. That change could ruin the neighborhoods’ mix of building styles and arrangements that Gross called “quirky and charming and not boring.”
One example, she said, are the alley houses in Lawrenceville, which are affordable and allow for more density that supports shops and walkability. Plus, the houses are part of Pittsburgh’s history — when population was increasing, families would build another house in their backyard, Gross said.
Gross also touted having “so many great local leaders,” who invest in their communities. But their projects aren’t ones that people know about. For example, she said, there was a group that put in a rain garden in Stanton Heights, grew hops and then, had a local brewery make beer from those hops. (The beer went so fast that Gross didn’t even have a chance to try it.) And that’s just one of multiple park and stormwater projects happening across the district.
“The ultimate goal is so you can get on your bicycle in Highland Park, and the longterm vision is to bike all the way to Washington D. C. on trail,” Gross said. “We take little steps toward that vision as we go.”
Q: What has been a memorable moment for you as a council member?
A: Gross said it’s the accumulation of day-to-day projects that support local control and ownership. But it’s also been the investments that she and other council members have made around child care and their work to add funds.
“As it starts to take shape it’s going to make Pittsburgh more livable for many many families,” Gross said. “This is community development, but it’s also economic development. Most of those child cares are women-owned businesses, probably at least 90 percent, so it’s investment in women’s business, an investment in neighborhood businesses and it’s supporting working families.”
Q: What advice do you have for residents involved in their neighborhoods?
A: “It’s OK to listen,” Gross said.
The council member said she encourages her staff to listen to the whole story from constituents to get to an actionable and helpful solution.
But a lot of the credit also goes to the neighborhood leaders who’ve been working together for years, and that’s why so much gets done, Gross said. They know that they may not agree with each other, but if they really listen to each other and don’t just argue, they’ll gain some perspective and get to a place they can agree, she said.
When it comes to tackling affordability as a city council, Gross said council members also have to really listen to each other about how their districts are the same and how they are different. Some are concerned about development and others are worried about disinvestment, so it takes deep listening to figure out a policy that addresses both, she said.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Gross said she’s focused on the rest of her term. She’s up for re-election in 2019. Then?
“We’ll see,” she said. “There’s certainly no lack of leadership in District 7, so I don’t have any worries.”