Pitt and Its Neighbors: A Productive Partnership

Issue Date: 
September 9, 2013

While the University of Pittsburgh is often recognized for its contributions to the Pittsburgh region in the vital area of economic impact and development, a review of Pitt’s interactions with its home communities reveals that Pitt also adds richness to these communities through a broad array of cultural, educational, health, social, and athletic programs, as well as through the positive involvement of its students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

“The University of Pittsburgh has long recognized that our success is drawn from the strength of our home communities. We have demonstrated that by reaching out effectively we can help make those communities more attractive and vibrant places for residents and the University alike,” said Paul Supowitz, Pitt’s vice chancellor for community and governmental relations.

A Record of Engagement and Collaboration

The modern history of the University of Pittsburgh, particularly during the tenure of Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, Members of Pitt's Staff Association Council serve dinner to residents of the University Club's Family House in December 2011.has been characterized by strong and expanded levels of engagement, interaction, and support with its neighboring communities. University representatives meet on a regular schedule with Oakland community groups, including Oakland Planning and Development Corporation (OPDC), Oakland Business Improvement District (OBID), Oakland Transportation Management Association (OTMA), Community Human Services (CHS), and Peoples Oakland. The University is regularly represented at community group meetings, including the Central Oakland Community Organization, Coalition of Oakland Residents, Oakcliffe Housing Club, Bellefield Area Citizens Association, Oak Hill Residents Council, and a number of other organizations.

As community group leaders, Oakland residents, neighboring institutions, City of Pittsburgh officials, and elected representatives regularly attest, the University has placed a strong emphasis on community consultation, engaging in extensive briefings, dialogue, and discussion regarding community and individual residents’ concerns, University master plans, and individual construction projects. In fact, the University’s public engagement efforts in the context of its campus master plan and construction of individual projects exceed the legal requirements imposed by the city. “Our initiatives in regard to being a good neighbor have been cited as examples for other institutions to follow. Pitt embraces this expanded approach to public consultation and discussion in order to consider all valuable input from the community. This approach regularly results in the execution of projects that are widely embraced and supported,” Vice Chancellor Supowitz said.

 PITT: A Valued Community Partner

One example of community support for the constructive interaction and dialogue that the University has fostered under the leadership of Chancellor Nordenberg comes from Sandra Phillips, executive director of Peoples Oakland, who has confirmed that the relationship between the University and the Oakland community “has deepened over the years and continues to provide a community-building model based on cooperative, effective, and inspiring teamwork. We thank the University of Pittsburgh for ongoing leadership and commitment to the strength and viability of the Oakland community.”

Peoples Oakland is not alone in its opinion of Pitt’s contributions to the community. 2010 Pitt Make a Difference DayAdrienne Walnoha, CEO of Community Human Services, attests to the fact that CHS has had a long and mutually beneficial partnership with the University of Pittsburgh. In fact, she has noted that after attending a variety of national conferences, she has not “found another city that has a community-based food pantry completely supported by the university.” She further notes that her colleagues are “consistently astounded that a university would be in the lead of that type of a grassroots project.” Mavis Rainey, executive director of the Oakland Transportation Management Association, also echoed those sentiments: “The collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh has benefited not only OTMA but the Oakland community as a whole. It demonstrates the University’s commitment to not only exist in Oakland but to be completely engaged in what happens in Oakland. One example is the Home Town Streets/Safe Routes to School Pedestrian Improvement Project. Not only did the University provide donated project management services throughout the three-year project, the University of Pittsburgh was a major contributor toward the funding of the project as well. Pitt continues to take a leadership role in working with the many community groups in Oakland to address the issues or concerns that go beyond just impacting their students, faculty, and staff. They recognize that whatever is done in Oakland impacts businesses, property owners, residents, and they embrace the opportunity to continue to work together as a community.”

“Simply put, Pitt’s ongoing commitment to the betterment of the Oakland community is being recognized nationally as a model of the best in town/gown relations,” Vice Chancellor Supowitz said.

 Student Housing and Campus Construction

Pitt has been and continues to be responsive to the input received from its surrounding community. For example, the single highest priority expressed by Oakland neighborhood groups and by city government in the mid-1990s was for the University to increase the amount of on-campus student housing. The University has responded directly to that expressed need by increasing the number of on-campus student housing spaces from about 5,300 beds in 1995 to almost 8,000 today. Over that same extended period, very little University construction has encroached on existing residential areas. The vast majority of University construction within the past 20 years has taken place on the existing footprint of Pitt’s campus or outside of Oakland. Examples of new construction within the University’s existing footprint include: Biomedical Science Tower 3 (BST3), Nordenberg Hall, Salk Hall addition, Graduate School of Public Health addition, Chevron Science Center addition, and Benedum Hall addition. The demolition of Pitt Stadium created space within the existing campus footprint for the Petersen Events Center and the Pennsylvania and Panther residence halls. University projects in Oakland’s business district, such as Sennott Square, Forbes and Bouquet green space, and the creation of the Oakland Business Improvement District (which the University championed) have helped revitalize this critical commercial area. At the same time, much development of University facilities has taken place outside of the Oakland area, including the Technology Center on Second Avenue, the Duratz Sports Complex and McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine on the South Side, the Center for Assistive Technologies in Bakery Square, the Pediatric Research Institute in Lawrenceville, and the Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside. These projects have been essential to the city’s most recent renaissance and have been enthusiastically supported by each of the neighborhoods in which they are located.

The University’s efforts and success in community engagement and partnership have been recognized both by Oakland community groups and a number of other organizations. Pitt was the top-ranked public university in the most recent edition of Saviors of our Cities: Survey of Best College and University Civic Partnerships. The University has also been the recipient, for three consecutive years, of the Good Neighbor Award from the United Way. Most recently, Pitt was recognized by President Obama on the 2013 National Honor Roll for Extraordinary and Exemplary Community Service Contributions. Last fall, City of Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl recognized the civic commitment of the University by issuing a proclamation recognizing the efforts of the Pitt community for the United Way Day of Caring and Pitt Make a Difference Day (when more than 3,300 Pitt students, faculty, and staff engaged in a wide range of community service projects).

Carefully Managed Growth

University expansion into the adjacent neighborhoods has been extremely limited in the past 20 years, and only when necessary to expand student housing (Bouquet Gardens) in a manner and location that was discussed with and supported by the community. The University engaged in an extensive discussion process with community groups and residents regarding the location for Bouquet Gardens, much of which was built on property already owned by the University (previously used for parking). Moreover, the University has faithfully adhered to, and in fact exceeded, the community consultation requirements and expectations set forth in the City Code. The University has also fulfilled the master planning requirements as set forth in the City of Pittsburgh’s Zoning Code. After that consultation process, the University’s Institutional Master Plan was unanimously approved by City Council. To focus on one recent example, that Master Plan included the identification of the location of Nordenberg Hall as an area that would be developed for student residential use in the future. The University consulted with all affected community groups regarding the project. In fact, Oakland area organizations were extremely supportive and complimentary of the design and development of Nordenberg Hall. In particular, residents have praised the inclusion of ground-level retail space, which also has allowed for the return of a retail bakery to Oakland in a University building across Fifth Avenue.

Financial and In-Kind Support

The University provides extensive financial support to Oakland area organizations and initiatives, both through direct contributions and in-kind services. The University’s Community Leisure Learn Program provides access for community residents to Pitt athletic and fitness facilities, with the University paying the program’s annual costs of more than $120,000. The University provides more than $115,000 annually to the Oakland Business Improvement District, including $59,000 in an annual voluntary contribution and also provides financial support for Oakland Planning and Development’s Keep It Clean Oakland initiative. A regular supporter of many other varied initiatives in the Oakland area, Pitt was one of the leading organizers and funders of the reconstruction of Schenley Plaza, a remarkable transformation that created an iconic community gathering place benefitting all of Oakland. The University provided $250,000 in matching funds as well as in-kind services for the Hometown Streets Project that upgraded intersections and improved pedestrian safety and access in the Forbes/Fifth Avenue corridor in Oakland. Pitt also has contributed extensively to upgrading municipal infrastructure in the Oakland area, including $385,000 to upgrade a public waterline on Bigelow Boulevard and replace and upgrade traffic signals along Bigelow Boulevard.

In addition, the University provides annual financial support to OTMA and has provided financial support for OPDC’s Oakland Dumpster Project. The University recently completed reconstruction and upgrade of sidewalks, protective railings, and traffic signals along Fifth Avenue at a cost of more than $800,000. And the University has been a long-term partner in the Oak Hill mixed-income redevelopment (as well as in the Allequippa Terrace public housing that preceded Oak Hill) through its Community Leisure Learn Program, Mathilda Theiss Health Center, and employment assistance and educational counseling programs, to name just a few. The University, at the community’s behest, located the Department of Health and Physical Activity of the School of Education as the prime tenant in Oak Hill’s Town Center. And the University also leases 3,000 sq. ft. in the Town Center that is donated to the Oak Hill Resident Council for community use (at a cost to Pitt of $56,000 annually).

These examples of projects and programs undertaken by Pitt over the past 10 years represent an investment of more than $4.1 million in Oakland by the University.

The list of in-kind contributions by the University is simply too long to set forth here. Whether it is the Oakland Food Pantry, community organization events, ongoing access to University facilities, or the extensive engagement of the University of Pittsburgh’s students as interns, volunteers, and staff throughout Oakland’s community-based organizations, the University is a ubiquitous participant in community life. The University has worked in a collaborative manner to address the impacts that come from the fact that Oakland is a magnet for students from around the City of Pittsburgh. Pitt’s annual financial support for OPDC’s Keep It Clean Oakland Program and Dumpster Project (which mobilizes at move-in time) has helped to reduce litter. The Keep It Clean Oakland Program utilizes University of Pittsburgh students to staff its 34 different Oakland adopt-a-block commitments. The University’s voluntary and tax support for the formation and ongoing operation of the OBID has helped to transform the busiest part of Oakland into a clean and vibrant district that serves residents and the University community. And of course, the University of Pittsburgh Police supplement the work of the Pittsburgh Police and provides protection and police services in the neighborhoods surrounding the University.

 Conscientiously Addressing Town-Gown Issues

The University has also been recognized for its efforts to educate students and lessen irresponsible behavior. Chancellor Nordenberg was honored by a group of national organizations, including The Gordie Foundation and Outside the Classroom, as the 2009 recipient of the prestigious Presidential Leadership Award, recognizing his success in promoting a vibrant intellectual and social campus climate at Pitt that de-emphasizes the role of alcohol. The University has created programs for its students to provide alternatives to excessive alcohol consumption. The University has also worked hard to educate its students about responsible behavior in the neighborhoods in which they live, recently publishing and distributing a Student Guide to Campus Life that has been exceedingly well received by members of the community and students. In fact, the guide is being used as a template for similar publications at colleges and universities throughout the country. The University has been a leading participant in the Pittsburgh Sociable City effort that has been lauded by Oakland community groups and the City of Pittsburgh as an effective collaborative effort to address impacts of nightlife around the City.

Through monthly meetings with Oakland-area community groups and attendance at community group meetings, Pitt provides regular updates to the community regarding its plans and engages in an ongoing dialogue about issues that may arise within the community related to the University. Pitt has successfully cultivated an open, responsive, and productive relationship with Oakland-area neighborhood associations and community groups. The University has established procedures with those organizations for following up on concerns raised regarding student behavior or other issues. Community groups and residents know that they can either contact the University of Pittsburgh Police or the University’s Office of Community and Governmental Relations with specific concerns.

“The University of Pittsburgh is proud of its record and its continuing commitment to being an engaged and supportive community partner. The University’s efforts in this regard have benefitted the Oakland community and we have been recognized by a number of outside organizations and individuals as well as elected officials and community groups throughout the region,” Vice Chancellor Supowitz said, “and we remain committed to working together with all those residents of Oakland who share our commitment to making the community the best it can be for all.”