Did you know that until a century ago there were two Swissvales?
The western portion, centered on Monongahela Avenue, and the eastern section, based on Noble Street, were separated by the railroad tracks.
You could get from one side to the other all right, by walking, giddying-upping your horse or driving your motorcar across the grading that crossed the tracks, but it was a risky business. In those days, there were a lot of trains.
Then, in 1907, a two-lane bridge was built to extend Washington Avenue above the tracks to join Monongahela and Noble, and a cohesive “downtown Swissvale” was created.
It’s not much of a bridge, even by 1907 standards, only about 100 feet long and built with simple beam construction. Still, it’s done the job of linking the two halves of Swissvale for more than a century.
There are attractive touches of fine, old Mon Valley workmanship evident in the shaping and riveting of the superstructure of the bridge. Even more impressive are the massive cyclopean masonry walls under the bridge that basically hold up a good portion of the borough’s downtown area.
Now, Washington Avenue again is the focus of Swissvale’s business community as a revitalization—a so-called “streetscape”—program prepares to get under way.
Developed under the direction of the borough’s Economic Development Advisory Committee (EDAC), the streetscape will add essentially decorative touches along most of Washington. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Washington Avenue today, it’s just that it's drab and uninviting for new business prospects and their potential customers.
The only bright spot is the Thomas L. Nied Funeral Home at mid-block, where the Nied family continually has beautifully maintained and landscaped its complex. Indeed, it’s an indictment of Washington Avenue that its cheeriest-looking establishment is a funeral home.
Everything else along the block is plain and spare, with the exception of the Filmet Building, at the western terminus of the bridge. Filmet is a decrepit, dangerous-looking hodge-podge of broken masonry and plywood.
Sadly, the industrial half of the Filmet structure covers up a handsome adjoining two-story mixed-use building that could become be an attractive residential-commercial space if the borough ever succeeds in its long-time campaign to tear down the industrial half.
The streetscape will do nothing about that visual blight, but will seek to make the most of the well-fixed intact buildings along the block that begins at Monongahela.
The Swissvale EDAC’s design firm of choice for the streetscape is the renowned Klavon Design Associates.
"We picked out an elegant lamp style, simple garbage cans and small, flowering trees” for the streetscape treatment," Klavon Design’s Maria Riley said. “The actual length and scope of the project might change, but right now it looks like it will stop at the bridge."
Currently, Klavon’s work is being reviewed by Swissvale Borough Engineer Robert Zischkau of Glenn Engineering, who reports that the plan is getting some engineering refinements and is expected to be put out for construction bids in October, with actual construction possible later this year or early in 2013.
Bidding will be handled by the Turtle Creek Valley Council of Goverments, a nonprofit that facilitates multi-municipal projects. The organization’s members include Braddock, Chalfant, Churchill, East McKeesport, East Pittsburgh, Edgewood, Forest Hills, Monroeville, North Braddock, North Versailles, Penn Hills, Pitcairn, Plum, Rankin, Swissvale, Turtle Creek, Wall, Wilkins, Wilmerding and Wilkinsburg.
Funding for the project will come from a $180,000 grant package by Allegheny County Economic Development.
All concerned concede that the Washington Streetscape is just a modest start, and a cosmetic one at that. There are several potential projects deeper in the drawing pad geared to developing other aspects of Swissvale’s distinct business districts. Green spaces, community gardens and other features are elements of those potential subsequent projects.
Business leaders have been generous in their praise of Swissvale council member Darrell Rapp, who has been leading EDAC’s efforts.
Rapp is enthused that further, more substantial improvements could rejuvenate “downtown Swissvale.” He says a combination of better lighting, policing, civic involvement and sidewalk amenities could change the district into a pedestrian-friendly area where people might stroll and window-shop—if there was anything to see.
Fine dining establishments, specialty shops, a bookstore, clothing stores and professional and nonprofit office spaces all are possibilities.
Community supporters also applaud the work of EZCB—the oddly named Enterprise Zone Corporation of Braddock, which serves Braddock, North Braddock, Rankin and Swissvale governments with a variety of funding, planning and organizational expertise. EZCB has been a catalyst for revitalization throughout Swissvale.