By Eric Sloss and Jonathan Potts

A neighborhood grocery store is something most folks take for granted. But not residents of the economically distressed Hill District of Pittsburgh, who may soon finally be able to do their grocery shopping right in their own backyard thanks to a team of eight students from Carnegie Mellon.

The interdisciplinary Carnegie Mellon team recently won the prestigious JP Morgan Chase Community Development Competition in New York City with their project "Centre Food: Bringing a Non-Profit Food Store to Pittsburgh's Hill District Neighborhood." Their victory means that The Hill House, a non-profit organization in the predominantly African-American Hill District, will receive $25,000 in seed money to pursue the students' plan to bring the neighborhood a long-needed grocery store.

“The idea arose when I went to a community meeting in the Hill District last fall, and amidst discussion and complaints about the lack of a grocery store in the community a resident suggested that the community take matters into their own hands and start something like a food co-op,” said Renee Roy, a masters student in the School of Architecture’s Urban Design program.

“Through my own research I was intrigued by the way that cooperatives not only serve a need for fresh food, but also serve a social mission by involving community members in the store operations and related outreach programs. The reinvestment of profits back into the store activities and other neighborhood initiatives was a particular aspect of cooperatives that I thought was especially important in revitalizing inner city neighborhoods such as the Hill,” Roy said.

Roy says the team adapted the cooperative model in their plan for the non-profit grocery store, called Centre Food. The store will be created in partnership with The Hill House, which offers an array of social services. The project's ultimate goal is to spur quality development in the Hill District and to ensure that the profits from local businesses are funneled back into the neighborhood.

"I think it will spark revitalization. They are so in need of a grocery store,” said project manager Lena Andrews, a Heinz School master of pubic policy and management student. “There is a lot of development going on there already, and I think this is a key part of what's missing."

The project was a result of a collaboration between the Urban Laboratory in the School of Architecture, the Heinz School and the Tepper School. The Urban Laboratory has been working in the Hill District since 1991 on a variety of community-based projects, said David Lewis, director of the Urban Lab and a Distinguished Professor of Urban Studies.

"This project is a wonderful example of the role of the Urban Laboratory in the Pittsburgh region. Since 1990, the Urban Laboratory and the Heinz School have been supporting Pittsburgh neighborhoods by putting multidisciplinary teams of students to work side by side with citizens, public officials, public and private organizations and different stake holders in order to create visions for future development," said Luis Rico-Gutierrez, associate dean of the College of Fine Arts.

"In all of this we have built up wonderful friendships in the Hill, and we have built tremendous credibility for our students. And the Hill has been good for our students. The Hill not only faces severe problems, but problems that are faced by every inner-city neighborhood in the United States," Lewis said.

Roy said The Hill House is now making preparations for a formal planning process that will begin this fall. She said the process will include input from Hill District residents and an advisory board with representatives from various organizations.

“We are hoping that through the non-profit business model, a strong network of community partnerships, a sound financing plan and an environmental building design, the Hill District will finally have what we believe is the most comprehensive solution for the grocery store,” Roy said.

The Carnegie Mellon student team members are Roy, Andrews, Rebecca Aarons- Sydnor, Nick Ennis, Erica Shinohara, Stanley Sun, Ryan Will and Rob Wilson. They represent the Tepper School of Business, the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management, the College of Engineering, the School of Architecture, and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

The students received advice and support from Carnegie Mellon faculty and staff members including Lewis, Rico-Gutierrez, Bob Gradeck, Kristen Kurland, Jerry Paytas and the Heinz School Career Services Office. Numerous Hill District residents as well as professionals around the city also provided their time and expertise as advisors.

Related Links:
The Centre Food Proposal
Urban Design Laboratory
David Lewis
Luis Rico-Gutierrez