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Charlie Stewart

Getting to the Core
East Liberty is a success story unfolding before our very eyes. Projects on the neighborhood’s periphery have been so well received that developers, hoping to fill the demand for more new restaurant, retail, office, apartment, and hotel spaces, are finally…

Fall 2013

CSLive. Work. Play…and Build. There’s a lot of construction taking place in East Liberty these days, with more to come. New developments abound at just about every corner, and keeping track of it all is work in itself, requiring nothing less than a roadmap—or better yet, an animated PowerPoint presentation.

Steve Mosites and Mark Minnerly of The Mosites Company press the “play” button to start a video illustrating exactly what they have in mind for a $133 million investment in EastSide Phases III and IV on a six-acre site across Penn Avenue from the Target store.

Right: A rendering of the East Plaza that is part of the proposed EastSide III design.

“This is so much, your head is going to blow up,” Minnerly warns jokingly.

Even the video can’t explain all the nuances of putting such a complicated deal together. Pausing it almost immediately, they explain how a $15 million TIGER IV (Transit Investments Generating Economic Recovery) grant awarded to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) of Pittsburgh made possible the final go-ahead for their master plan of the East Liberty Transit Center. The plan includes the re-positioning of the East Liberty bus station along the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway and construction of a more intuitive, landscaped, and pedestrian-friendly entry plaza.

CSThe video plays on to show various stages of demolition of pedestrian bridges and the National Indoor Tennis Club. An elevated road will then connect Highland and Penn avenues, which ingeniously will be the new grade level for the transit-oriented development consisting of a two-level parking garage with 560 spaces, 43,000 square feet of groundfloor retail space, and 350 apartments. At a total of 650,000 square feet of gross building area, it will be more than double the size of Target. Demolition work is to be completed by late fall, with the entire timeline stretching out into early 2016.

Left: A rendering of an aerial view of the EastSide III complex, with the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway in the foreground and the spire of East Liberty Presbyterian Church rising in the distance.

At the end of the video, Minnerly sums up his vision for this site in the middle of The Mosites Company’s 16 acres along the border of Shadyside and East Liberty. “This is the jewel in the crown,” he says.

CSThe area has come a long way in the dozen years since the Yellow Cab Company’s worn headquarters building and parking lot on Centre Avenue plus a neighboring car wash were demolished to make way for the bustling EastSide I and its anchor store, Whole Foods Market.

Besides convenience to consumers, the success of all phases of EastSide is partially realized in the 600 to 700 jobs generated by EastSide II, Target, and Whole Foods. Whole Foods has been so successful that an expansion is in the works. A two-story extension of the store into the parking lot will add more space for prepared foods, produce, and other departments like a wine and beer bar.

Right: Whole Foods Market, the first of the EastSide complex projects, has been so successful it is now slated for expansion.

But don’t worry—looking for a parking place may actually get easier, too. “Parking would be increased by 50 percent,” says Mosites, who explains how there would be less parking on the Centre Avenue entrance level, but more available when the upper-deck parking area of EastSide II is extended to meet the new second level of Whole Foods. Now the problem is how to make all of these improvements while keeping the store open.

CSThe achievements at EastSide can be traced back to the brainstorm Molly Blasier had in 1998 to lure Whole Foods to East Liberty. Now it has come full circle for Blasier, principal of Blasier Urban, LLC, as she takes advantage of that same momentum she helped foster by co-developing a project with ELDI Real Estate, LLC.

Right: As depicted in this rendering, plans for The Odeon Building include a restaurant and movie theater topped by luxury apartments, all to be built along Penn Avenue, beginning where the former PNC Bank (below) stands vacant on South Highland Avenue.

ELDI stands for East Liberty Development, Inc., a community development corporation formed as a nonprofit by the East Liberty Quarter Chamber of Commerce in 1979 to facilitate the neighborhood’s revitalization. It owns contiguous properties starting at the former PNC Bank at the corner of South Highland and Penn avenues.

Those buildings are slated for demolition as early as next summer to make way for The Odeon Building, which will have a digital multiplex movie theater and a full-service restaurant, both owned by Odeon Entertainment, but operated by Atlanta-based Spotlight Theatres. Fifty-six luxury apartments will be built on four floors above the theater, along with 43 sub-grade residential parking spaces.

CS“What The Odeon Building will do is finally bring a sense of life to that core strip of Penn Avenue, that older core, which is fabulous,” Blasier says.

Across the street, ELDI has begun work on a $500,000 development called Town Square, slated for completion this fall. The idea is to mimic a European-style cathedral plaza by transforming the front yard of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church. Storm water mitigation will capture the rain coming off the church and water the thousands of plants and trees being added. “We will have created a plaza with landscaping and tree cover where people can go and gather, sit, and have lunch,” says Skip Schwab, investment officer for ELDI.

“It’s going to be gorgeous.”

Perfect timing. You can grab a sandwich and a smoothie from Creamy Creations opening across the street, or take out a soup and salad from Everyday’s A Sundae & Café, which just moved into the former Vanilla Pastry Studio space along Centre Avenue. ELDI Real Estate, LLC is also partnering with developer Matt Ciccone on a $20 million renovation to transform the vacant, centuryold YMCA building on Whitfield Street into a 65-room Ace Hotel, hoping to start construction before year’s end. Ace operates boutique hotels in Seattle, Portland, New York, and Palm Springs. Each has a position for a “cultural engineer” in charge of scheduling programming with local talent that helps to create the unique vibe that led The New York Times to call it “the country’s most original new hotel.”

CSUp two blocks from the future Ace Hotel, construction is under way on a new Hotel Indigo, part of an InterContinental Hotels Group chain referred to as the first branded boutique hotel. Developer Nigel Parkinson is the owner of Washington, D.C.-based 2414 Morgan Development and its sister company, Parkinson Construction, a sub-contractor on both the building of Nationals Park baseball stadium in Washington and a renovation of the Pentagon.

After an acquaintance introduced him to Pittsburgh, Parkinson started assembling properties in 2005 in the block surrounded by Kirkwood, Whitfield, and Broad streets and North Highland Avenue. When private financing dried up during the recession, the $20 million hotel project was mothballed. But it’s back now, and three existing buildings, including the vacant old Governor’s Hotel, are being preserved and incorporated, along with a new addition, into the 137-suite Hotel Indigo.

Right: Plans are in the works to convert this former YMCA building on Whitfield Street into a boutique Ace Hotel.

“There’s some aspect to older buildings that you cannot replicate,” Parkinson says. “It’s easy when you tear down and build new, but when you renovate, you have to think.”

The Hotel Indigo is part of a complex Parkinson is calling Indigo Square, which launched with a recently completed plaza of unique shops. Olive & Marlowe sells gourmet olive oil and balsamic vinegar sourced from California, while Kiya Tomlin Pittsburgh specializes in custom-designed dresses for women, teens, and children. Next door is chemistry, where owner Jeneane Hugus carries women’s contemporary clothing. Two doors away, her husband, Brent Hugus, and his partner, John Nicklas, are planning an October opening for their second location of Luxe, a kitchen and bath design showroom.CS

CS“It’s definitely picking up with all the new construction and new retailers here,” Jeneane Hugus says. “And we are glad to be one of the first ones here.”

Just across the street from Indigo Square, Julia Reynolds opened The Shop in East Liberty a year ago selling what she calls “everyday artwork”—affordable art, home goods, and jewelry. Her shop is within walking distance from the home in East Liberty she bought from ELDI. “I love it here,” she says “I think ELDI has a good thing going. It seems they created this essential perimeter around East Liberty, and gradually over time, it’s sort of moving inward toward the core of the East Liberty business district, which I think has been a pretty smart move on their part.”

ELDI is selling two properties on the corner of Penn Avenue and Penn Circle East across from Target to Tony Dolan, president of Alphabet City Development. They will be assembled with a third parcel he already owns. The project, named East Liberty Center, is (at press time) in the approval process, and designs indicate new construction with one level of retail and five stories of office space above.

Right: The first of the cluster of upscale boutiques to open in the core of the neighborhood, The Shop in East Liberty carries artistic goods for the home.

“I want it to be a signature building—one that would be worthy of its position in that neighborhood given that it will be one of the first new projects within East Liberty’s core in a very long time,” Dolan says.

Just on the edge of where the business core meets newer residential development is the East End Cooperative Ministry’s nearly completed Community House, a $14 million project that will allow the nonprofit organization to operate its various programs under a single roof and expand its services. EECM is an interfaith ministry that helps at-risk youth, the hungry, the homeless, and others in need throughout the East End.

CS“The Community House duplicates what the neighborhood looks like,” says Myrna Zelenitz, executive director of EECM. “Lots of porches and places for people to sit, so it’s where everyone in the neighborhood can come together. I’m thrilled for the community. Everyone will be welcome with open arms.”

Of course one of the major coups underlying the East Liberty renaissance has been the location and subsequent growth of the Google Pittsburgh offices in the nearby Bakery Square development along Penn Avenue in Larimer. Emerging entrepreneurs have followed suit, starting up their high-tech businesses in coworking and incubator spaces in East Liberty like The Beauty Shoppe, Thrill Mill, and, most recently, AlphaLab Gear, which is launching this fall.

“It’s an up-and-coming place where the young, progressive people in the city want to live,” says John Dick, founder and CEO of CivicScience, a polling and data mining company. Dick, a Fox Chapel resident, started his business in the Strip District, but moved to East Liberty recently to better attract software engineers to his company.

And as more and more “Googlers” and other young professionals move into the East End, they are seeking places to live nearby.

CSGregg Perelman of Walnut Capital is answering the call. His firm and Massaro Properties partnered in the $30 million renovation of the Highland and Wallace buildings, converting what were originally designed as professional offices back in 1910 into 117 apartments. Mainly one-bedroom, but also some two- and three-bedroom units, rental rates at Walnut on Highland range from $1,300 to $2,000 depending on the view, the layout, and the number of windows.

Left: Bakery Square, the redeveloped former Nabisco plant launched in the summer of 2010, has brought young professionals into the area and helped fuel the need for more new apartments

“There’s a pent-up demand,” Perelman says. “It’s very gratifying to see that people are embracing the idea of moving into East Liberty. In Pittsburgh, we are all about borders and where you can go and can’t go, but people from out of town, they look at the whole area, and not at borders per se. So for them this is a very cool apartment building to be able to move into where everything is brand-new, and they can walk out and be in a neighborhood that is coming of age.”

CSFor tenants of Walnut on Highland, it will be an easy elevator ride down for a haircut at Great Clips or to meet friends for a margarita and enchiladas at Patron Mexican Grill opening on the first floor of the Wallace Building. Across the street, Bobby Fry and his partners at Bar Marco in the Strip District are opening The Livermore bar and eatery in the former Waffle Shop space.

“East Liberty is really an amazing center for innovation and a young style of living,” Fry says. “And I think The Livermore will absolutely appeal to the people here because it’s modeled after a lot of bars in Brooklyn, where there is a similar kind of scene as East Liberty.”

Right: Constructed in 1910, the Highland Building was designed by noted architect Daniel Hudson Burnham, whose other works include the Frick Building in Downtown Pittsburgh and Union Station in Washington, D.C. Walnut Capital converted it into an apartment building, which opened to tenants over the summer.

The Livermore and Patron are just the latest additions to a burgeoning dining scene in East Liberty. Last year, pioneering local restaurateur Kevin Sousa (of Salt in neighboring Garfield) opened Union Pig and Chicken, a full-service barbecue eatery, on North Highland Avenue in the neighborhood’s core. Months later he launched Harvard & Highland, a craft cocktail bar, right above it. Then award-winning chef David Racicot opened Notion just a few blocks away, bringing sophisticated fine dining to the core.

CSThese new establishments have joined other nearby popular restaurants like Spoon, Brgr, Plum, Paris 66, Dinette, and Tana in creating a critical mass of acclaimed dining options to draw people in from across the metropolitan area.

“It’s good to see new businesses coming in to give people a lot more options as far as restaurants go,” says Kristian Trapl, manager of Don’s Appliances, which moved into the heart of East Liberty seven years ago. “It’s good to see that people are investing in this area of Pittsburgh.”

Left: Diners on the patio at Plum, situated at the corner of South Highland Avenue and Penn Circle South, have a front row seat to the redevelopment taking place at the Wallace Building across the street.

CSReal estate developer Eddie Lesoon, Jr. of The Wedgwood Group has invested heavily in area. He owns property throughout East Liberty and is doing his part to attract people to the neighborhood. Over the past six years, as other developers were building and renovating on the perimeter, Lesoon went straight to the heart, revitalizing buildings on Broad Street and near the intersection of Penn and Highland avenues.

Right: New light fixtures on the Highland and Wallace buildings complement the historic structures.

CS“East Liberty Quarter Chamber of Commerce had the vision to say that the only way East Liberty as a whole could survive and succeed is if we went down the middle and purged the place of all its negatives, which is the old bars and the other places where people were hanging out,” says the developer, who is the chamber’s vice president.

Left: Flower baskets, spearheaded by the East Liberty Quarter Chamber of Commerce with help from local businesses, add color to Broad Street.

Those efforts paid off when tenants like Sousa, with his popular restaurants, Reynolds, with her tasteful shop, and several incubators moved into Lesoon’s properties. Now he’s “very, very excited” about his most recent new tenant, Peace, Love, & Zen Holistic Wellness Center, which is opening its doors this fall and featuring the region’s first Himalayan salt cave (see page 81). “It is going to draw in a lot of people from all over the city of Pittsburgh to see it,” says Lesoon.

CSIn addition to crediting the neighborhood chamber for helping to bring about the positive changes he is seeing around him, Lesoon also offers “a huge thanks” to the URA. “Without the URA, we could have never done it—their guidance, their funding; they were great,” he says.

Right: Union Pig and Chicken has become an East Liberty hot spot.

Lesoon’s desire to attract high-quality tenants is shared by the other major developers in East Liberty, who all have their eye on the prize, says Lori Moran, vice president of Ballymoney Real Estate Services, Inc., which manages The Village of East Side on Penn Avenue.

CS“We all have the same philosophy, which is it’s better to sit on a vacancy and not collect rent then to lease to someone who’s not good for your shopping center,” she explains. “Bakery Square is doing that. Mosites is doing that. And we’ve been doing that since we brought in Trader Joe’s back in 2006.

“So could we be 100 percent leased? Absolutely, with our eyes shut. But you can lease or you can revitalize,” she says with emphasis.

Left: The Wedgwood Group’s freshly renovated properties dot East Liberty’s core. The building on the left will soon open as a holistic wellness center.

That philosophy seems to be working. The recent arrival of Alterations Express, plus a few lease agreements pending at press time bring the first-floor retail occupancy rate at The Village of East Side to 92 percent.

A few blocks away, Walnut Capital has begun executing a master plan to expand Bakery Square, which has reached capacity with more than 1,000 employees working there at Google, UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon’s Software Engineering Institute, and the Veterans Administration Pittsburgh Human Engineering Research Laboratory.

Called Bakery 2.0, the $130 million project is under way across the street from Bakery Square on a 12-acre parcel in Shadyside once occupied by Reizenstein Middle School. In the plans are 400,000 square feet of office space, two apartment rental buildings with 175 apartments each, and 57 townhomes for rent. Construction has begun on the first of the two apartment buildings.

CS“Basically we are creating a campus environment here,” Perelman says. “With the [Springhill Suites] hotel, new restaurant [Social] opening here, all of the office tenants here, now we have a place where people can live in an apartment or town home, and it just makes it one big campus that we have created here.”

Left: A rendering of the Bakery Square 2.0 development that is now under construction across the street from Bakery Square, which is also pictured here.

Though technically just beyond the borders of East Liberty, the Bakery Square projects are strategic elements in the continued revitalization of the neighborhood. Everyone seems to get the significance of moving toward the core and bringing back a healthy variety of businesses so there is something for everyone.

CS“On the one hand you have Julia [Reynolds of The Shop in East Liberty], who opens a darling little gift shop,” says Moran, who is also president of the East Liberty Quarter Chamber of Commerce. “And on the other end, you have the 800-lb. gorillas of Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Target, with everything in between. Having a mix of tenants and a mix of uses is the key to sustaining a revitalization program. And that’s what we have.”

Yes, but…“People are still upset that the car wash is gone,” Schwab says.

Right: Café tables on Penn Avenue are a small but significant sign of the turn-around taking place in East Liberty.

With many thanks to SHADY AVE magazine for granting me permission to reprint on my website.


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