Transforming Meade Street into Green Street

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Late last summer, as part of its commitment to local agriculture, Pittsburgh’s East End Food Co-op began investigating the possibility of developing an urban farm. This project brought us into contact with our neighbor, Construction Junction, a nonprofit retailer of recycled building materials. It turned out that executive director Mike Gable had been patiently waiting for us to “wake up” and fill the community leadership shoes that we had left empty for so long.

For a couple of decades East End Food Co-op (EEFC) had been one of those co-ops that struggle along, just getting by, with very little competition, lots of internal dissent, and high staff turnover. One result of this long-standing dysfunctional culture was that we rarely showed up in any powerful way outside our doors.

Whole Foods’ entrance into the local market nearly put us out of business, but we have evolved significantly since then. The co-op just posted its second straight year in the black. And we have a general manager seriously exploring how we can become a great co-op.

In our first meeting with Construction Junction (CJ) Gable sprung his trap. For years he had been envisioning the concept of building a “green neighborhood” in our little corner of Pittsburgh. In fact, he said, “If you look at what is already on the block, a case can be made that our post-industrial, partially redeveloped block is already the greenest in Pittsburgh.”

With organizations including CJ and East End Food Co-op; Grow Pittsburgh, an urban agriculture non-profit; Agrecycle, an agricultural recycling company; Comprecycle, a technology recycling company; Free Ride, a bicycle recycling collective; Penn State Cooperative Extension, a university extension focused on horticulture, agriculture, food safety, and sustainability; Pittsburgh’s largest recycling drop-off center; and Steel City Biofuels on the way, we were the greenest block in spite of our brown field atmosphere. “We can’t do this on our own,” Gable said. “But if our two businesses partner up and collaborate, we might really be able to make this happen.”

The year 2006 was when going green got hip. Suddenly, it was cool to be sustainable and this outlook was expanding into the mainstream. We envisioned a green tidal wave sweeping Pittsburgh, with EEFC and CJ riding the crest—a major, inspiring green project in our pocket—just as the foundation community and government finally awaken to their fiscal responsibilities to support the new movement. What an amazing way for a co-op to show up in its greater community!

Vital to EEFC’s mission is support for a sustainable and local community. And let’s not forget the cooperative principle, “Concern for Community,” which asserts that we must help find sustainable solutions to the issues that confront our communities.

Our reality was challenging, however. Like other co-ops, we have been facing new competition and going through significant changes. At $6.5 million in sales, we were finally converting from manual registers to a POS system—a huge undertaking. Not to mention that we were in the middle of a union drive with an NLRB election in our near future, which illuminated a culture of discontent within the organization that we badly needed to transform. We had also made an organization-wide commitment to achieving a living wage, but had a long way to go.

So it was not an easy decision. But the opportunity to drive something that could make a huge difference for our membership, our neighborhood, our city, or even our country, was just too good to pass up.

Our greater vision is to create something new—an intentional, mixed use, green neighborhood based on a ‘whole systems’ approach to living that will become a reproducible model for other communities to adapt. Our 17-acre project will be developed around the core values of sustainability, affordability, diversity, local, adaptive reuse, and a live-work-play neighborhood. While some buildings would likely receive LEED certification, many of the models being considered are precedents from Europe and Japan that go beyond LEED, with an emphasis on ‘carbon neutral’ living which would incorporate passive solar heating, edible landscaping, rainwater harvesting, shared green space, and alternative sources for energy usage.

We enlisted the Coro Center for Civic Leadership to assist us in developing the project, which resulted in a finely honed vision. While going through this process, we had discussions with an amazing number of people. Just about everywhere we went, enthusiasm and excitement reigned. We figured it would take a lot more effort to attract the private developers we needed. We were mistaken.

The quality of our work and the vision we had conceived was so compelling that developers with core values similar to our own surfaced almost immediately. Together, we have recently been in contact with the City of Pittsburgh through the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), and once again the enthusiasm seems genuine and strong. If the URA comes on board, the local green neighborhood vision will likely be fulfilled, as the infrastructure redevelopment needed to form our community could begin. If we can realize its full potential, the green block initiative could play a huge role in our city’s efforts to build a strong local green economy.

For EEFC, turning Meade Street into a green street is our own best shot at supporting that new economy, as well sourcing our own future success. Wish us luck, and be on the lookout for your own opportunities. After all, this is the kind of stuff we’re really here for, right?

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Rob Baran led two successful business startups in the natural foods industry, and he has been general manager at East End Food Co-op in Pittsburgh since 2005 ([email protected]). Jennifer English recently completed the Sustainable Systems program at Slippery Rock University and now works as a consultant through Urban Foodworks.

See other articles from this issue: #133 November - December - 2007