Monday, June 21, 2010

Three-story Community Business Reflects the Changing Face of Polish Hill

After 30 years of losing daytime retail businesses, Polish Hill has landed three promising new shops in one fell swoop. On Sunday, June 13, a teeming crowd of customers greeted a coffee shop, a record store, and a bookstore—all neatly stacked in one modest, turn-of-the-century building on the corner of Dobson and Hancock.  

                                    Next stop on the 54C: 3138 Dobson.

Though it may sound like the perfect planned community for a neighborhood gaining younger artist, musician, and academic homeowners, the complex started with an impulsive move by two Polish Hill residents. “There had been one bad landlord after another, the building had been Section 8 apartments, and then it had stood empty for over a year--it was in crumbling disrepair,“ explains Pittsburgh realtor and Polish Hill Civic Association Vice President, Catherine McConnell. “A homeless fellow was crawling into the basement in the winter and lighting fires to keep himself warm. I felt strongly that this was a very important building to get back for the neighborhood.” McConnell had tried contacting the building owner over months with intent to show it, but in vain. One day in 2008 she drove by and saw a fellow realtor showing the building to “investor types.” She turned a corner and called her colleague on the phone. “’Give me 24 hours--I’ll find you a tenant,’ I begged her.” But a day later, “Catherine came to me and said, ‘We have to buy this building ourselves,’“ recalls photographer Mark Knobil, McConnell’s partner. The couple have resided in Polish Hill for eight years now. 

It didn’t take long for the two to run into a business partner in the form of Polish Hill musician Robert Levkulich, who was looking to open a coffee shop with his girlfriend, designer Carrie DiFiore. The four signed an agreement almost exactly two years ago. “Polish Hill has needed a public space—a gathering place—for a long time, “ says Knobil. A 2008 neighborhood survey confirms that 54% of respondents thought a coffee shop would greatly benefit the neighborhood. McConnell continues, “Coffee shops have become something people seek out like a second living room. We go to cafés in Lawrenceville or Bloomfield and see our neighbors from Polish Hill—now we hope to see them even closer to home.” Lili Coffee Shop, named for DiFiore and Levkulich’s two-year old daughter, offers wifi and espresso drinks, baked goods and smoothies, ice cream and wraps. But unlike some cafés in the post-Starbucks world, Levkulich also includes reasonably-priced coffee and cheap nosh on his menu. (Macaroons are $1, and certain cookies are 75c.) The John Paul Plaza retirement home up the block, and a bus stop right at Lili’s front door, means many fixed-income senior citizens pass the corner every day. And like the rest of the neighborhood, they've had no public places to convene besides the bars or the church. Before now. 

“I want to attract a mixed-income crowd,” says Levkulich, who is thinking of starting a limited-hours delivery service to the retirement home. “You don’t really see those kinds of places opening up anymore.” 

                                   Overheard Sunday morning at Lili Coffee Shop: “I need something that’ll keep me awake during Mass.”

The upstairs ventures at 3138 Dobson are expected to attract both local and destination shoppers. And in an area of roughly 1,500 residents, they may have to. “The Gooski’s Business Model, “ PHCA President Terry Doloughty calls this, referring to the popular Polish bar and music venue on Brereton Street which has served for years as the neighborhood’s biggest draw: “It’s a community bar during the week, and on weekends, it gets what I call the ‘tourists’.” Third-floor resident at the Dobson complex, Copacetic Comics, already has a dedicated following of folks who have traveled across town for years to browse owner Bill Boichel’s uniquely-curated selection of comic books, graphic novels, fiction, art books, DVDs, CDs, and periodicals. The second-floor retailer, Mind Cure Records, is a brand new business venture but owner Michael Seamans is a familiar face to Pittsburgh music scenesters who know him from Paul’s CDs and (Lawrenceville music club) Belvedere’s record sales events.  A retail store featuring art, flowers, and vintage items, Urban Gypsy, opened April 22 around the corner on Brereton and has drawn regular customers from such swank addresses as Sewickley, Washington’s Landing, and Shadyside. 

                                   Bill Boichel moved Copacetic Comics across town from Squirrel Hill. He is excited about the chance to connect his wide variety of graphic novels and other “cultural resources” with a new audience, especially “the growing young adult population in Polish Hill that's accruing here due to the modest rent.”

To lure folks in, Lili Coffee Shop has already featured one evening of acoustic music, and will host a literary reading during the Polish Hill Arts Festival. The café also plans to install a small bike repair area in the back, providing (for free) some work stands and basic tools for neighborhood bike riders as well as those trekking through. Levkulich has noticed not only many cyclists who use Polish Hill as a cut-through to the East End, but also a number of academic residents of the neighborhood who bike to the universities in Oakland. 

Aside from one neighbor on Dobson who worried aloud about street parking, local feedback about the complex has been overwhelmingly positive. Levkulich says, “I remember hearing about the neighbors across the street from Tazzo D’Oro Café in Highland Park--they filed an ordinance because they didn’t want the noise from the sidewalk café. We’ve had nothing like that.” One café employee claims, “I don’t know how many times I’ve heard customers say, ‘I’ve been waiting 13 years to get a cup of coffee around here!’ ” Throughout the two-year renovation of the complex, neighbors had been not only supportive but increasingly eager. According to Knobil, “Everytime someone passed me on the street, whether it was a bike punk or an elderly woman, it was, ‘When’s the coffee shop going to open?’ To be honest, there were many times over the past two years when I would have gladly walked away from the project. But I would’ve been tarred and feathered.”  

The project encountered numerous challenges in its two-year journey, including getting the building up to commercial code, reinforcing the floors to bear hundreds of pounds of books and vinyl records, running over budget, and at least a few differences of opinion. “Everyone we knew told us that we should be making this into high-end apartments and not commercial space,” Knobil states. But as a realtor, McConnell noticed, “When I’d want to show a place in Polish Hill, people said right away, ‘There’s nothing you can walk to.’ So I’d have to show them Bloomfield or Lawrenceville instead.” She adds, “The trend of buildings in disrepair in Polish Hill was hard to kick. It was decades of poorly-kept rentals, too many empty houses, and delinquent landlords.” As Seamans points out, “If you look around at Polish Hill buildings, you can see how many storefronts there used to be. This place is like a time-capsule of the moment the steel industry died.”

Knobil says, “The café, the upstairs shops—it’s about making Polish Hill a nicer place to be for the people who live here.” With that aim in mind, the building owners are offering their commercial tenants below-market rents.

                                   Michael Seamans (pictured) worked with longtime Pittsburgh punk rocker Dan Allen to create the business of Mind Cure Records (named in homage to a now-defunct Pittsburgh-based punk record label). Allen, in turn, brought Bill Boichel and Copacetic into the business complex.

Almost everyone involved in making the three-business project a reality has been a Polish Hill resident, from the architects to the general contractors, from the plumber to the designers, and even the owners of the first and second floor businesses—who themselves have put significant amounts of sweat equity into their spaces.  The latest Polish Hill residents to enter the scene are the three café servers employed at Lili Coffee Shop, who are grateful that they can walk to work. (Levkulich jokes about knocking on their doors if they’re running late.)

Mark Knobil admits he hasn’t yet relaxed into a sigh of relief, even knowing that opening day has passed—as if after two years of unexpected developments, he’s still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Catherine McConnell laughs as she looks around the brightly-painted walls of the finally-realized project, “We’ve wanted a café in the neighborhood for years. Frankly, we hoped someone else would do it!”


Ruthanne F. Bauerle said...

Love this article. Looking forward to visiting Mark, an old neighbor, and Michael with some records. Good luck to all!

Unknown said...

Heading over there this morning to check it out. Thanks for this! I love hearing about new local businesses, especially new local coffee shops!