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Charlie Stewart
 

Redeveloping East Liberty
If you like your Sunday nights on the calm side, Heinz Chapel may be the ideal place for you.

Spring 2006

CSRob Stephany, director of development for East Liberty Development, Inc. (ELDI), a local non-profit community development corporation, brings up an aerial photograph on his laptop. “The big picture for East Liberty is that there is an urban quality and fabric of a downtown. If you squint you can see the main five or six boulevards converging here,” he explains, while pointing to the heart of East Liberty’s once-bustling commercial district.

This is the heart that stopped beating after an urban renewal plan in the ’60s went horribly, horribly wrong. Once they laid down a one-way stateowned highway (PA-380) that encircled the neighborhood, nobody could figure out how to get off of it in order to shop in the pedestrian malls. This was in addition to the demolition of over a thousand homes.

CS“It’s interesting,” reflects Stephany, “What are now parking fields used to be a neighborhood. One of the things that urban renewal did is effectively eliminate the idea of neighborhoods that used to be a block away from the dentist’s office. Instead it created nothing but disconnects.”

Right: The spires of East Liberty Presbyterian Church tower high above the neighborhood. Future plans call for the church to become part of a central plaza.

Today, connections are being reestablished as a committed group of urban planners, developers, market analysts, politicians, foundations, and community groups are working together to re-weave the district so that there is a natural and beneficial flow back and forth between residential and commercial, and between neighborhoods themselves.”

The most commercially viable and visible efforts to date are on the periphery, where Shadyside borders East Liberty, in particular on Centre Avenue. The Whole Foods store that was developed by partners Steve Mosites, Mark Minnerly, and Molly Blasier is so popular that only a prayer to your parking angel will land you a parking place. Out of 181 stores in the US and UK, it is currently ranked in the top 20 in the company, according to Kim Wynnyckyj, marketing director for Whole Foods Market, Pittsburgh. And with Whole Foods consistently listed in the Fortune list of the top 100 companies to work for, the neighborhood is benefiting from those employment opportunities.

“Probably half of our team members are from the East End,” Ms. Wynnyckyj says. In coming to Whole Foods people have, for the first time in decades, entered a comfort zone with East Liberty. With the psychological barrier having been broken, the merging of the communities has begun. “Whole Foods is one of the most diverse shopping experiences that western Pennsylvania has to offer,” says Stephany.

The huge construction project to the east of Whole Foods, where you used to have your car washed, is EastSide Phase II, a three-acre Mosites project containing mixed retail on two levels with parking. The name EastSide was coined by Peter Blasier, Molly’s husband, to represent the merging of the two communities, East Liberty and Shadyside. First—and very soon—to open will be a Walgreen’s drugstore. Walgreen’s is what Whole Foods calls its best co-tenant, according to Mosites. “They are perfectly symbiotic,” says Stephany. “Everything Whole Foods sells, Walgreen’s doesn’t sell.” And vice versa.

Opening in stages throughout 2006 and early 2007 will be a PNC (the branch that is re-locating from the corner of Highland and Penn avenues), a Starbucks, a two-level Borders bookstore, and an Eva Szabo Day Spa. The PLCB Super Winestore, opening mid-summer, will be three times larger than any wine and spirits store in the city and will feature a walk-in wine cooler and wine tastings.

CSOne of the structural links between the two communities is a planned pedestrian bridge tying EastSide Phase II to Shadyside at the intersection of Ellsworth Avenue and Spahr Street. The Heinz Endowments have donated $150,000 for the design and early stage engineering, and PennDOT granted a million dollars for construction. “While we have been talking about it forever,” says Stephany, “people are starting to think that it’s being planned without them. We are trying to bring an artist on board to work with the neighborhood and to pull together a design of a bridge that is going to connect the neighborhoods and not create a barrier.” Stephany is hoping for an early 2007 completion date.

Left: Walgreen's drugstore will be opening soon as part of EastSide Phase II.

The pedestrian bridge may come in handy considering the condition of the existing South Highland Avenue bridge. As Bill Peduto, councilman for District 8, explains it, “The South Highland Avenue bridge has gotten so bad that it has to be completely replaced. It’s rusted through.” Pointing to the stack of 2006 city budgets piled on his desk, Peduto continues, “The money for the final engineering study is part of our 2006 budget, so that we can do a replacement in 2007. The mayor has to decide to spend that money on what it was appropriated for and not reappropriate it for something else.”

Which takes us to EastSide Phase III, the Mosites development on the other side of Highland from Phase II. The partners have cobbled together the properties adjacent to the busway, which include the Pittsburgh Indoor Tennis Club, the Parking Authority parking lot behind the Stevenson building, and the Kingsley Community Center that has relocated. The odd configuration prompts Minnerly to comment, “It’s like a pork chop behind a building.” Fortunately they have received a $4 million Business in Our Sites (BOS) grant/loan for land assembly, initial demolition, site preparation, and infrastructure improvements. “We’ve been in discussions with the Port Authority to help them improve the quality of their bus interchange while integrating it with a retail development,” says Minnerly. Planning, marketing, and site prep are scheduled for 2006 with tenant-ready spaces available in 2007.

CSHesitant to say how much they are putting into both EastSide phases, Minnerly does say, “We are spending more on this project than what a conventional retail developer would spend. The rebranding of East Liberty as a place that’s not just marginal has required more money than normal, and that’s where an ELDI has been a great partner because they’ve helped us do the impossible.”

Right: On the drawing board for East Liberty are a number of new construction projects, as well as several projects that involve renovating historic buildings.

Other real estate developers are counting on people wanting to move into East Liberty. Using the site of the ATI Auction Gallery, located next to the AAA parking lot across from Whole Foods, and a second adjoining parcel from the URA Crossgates, Inc. of McMurray starts construction this summer on a seven-story residential tower with parking and 30 lofts, ranging in price from $187,900 to $424,000 for the penthouse suites. A developer from Denver has site control of the former YMCA on South Whitfield Street, next door to the library, and is also turning it into lofts. Terminus Real Estate, Inc. of Knoxville, Tennessee, is the sixth in a long line of developers who have at one time or another had an interest in the Highland Building, built as one of a pair for Henry Clay Frick in 1910. After being vacant for 25 years, the historic building on Highland Avenue, across from East Liberty Presbyterian Church, will be converted to lofts and first floor retail. All of these are in addition to the 50 condo units under construction above the nearby expanded Giant Eagle at Negley and Centre avenues.

CSThe Wallace Building at Highland and Penn Circle South, where the Guiding Light is located, is one structure of a total of four in that block that are due to be torn down. “All I’ve heard is that it’s going to be a hotel,” says Michelle Meshenko, daughter of the Guiding Light’s owner. “Finding a new place with ceilings high enough for our chandeliers was a challenge, but we are moving to Allegheny Avenue in Oakmont.”

Left: Construction is scheduled to begin this summer on a residential tower across the street from Whole Foods.

Across the street, the owner of the historic Stevenson Building is working to bring a restaurant into that space.

Farther east, the Wheeler Paint Building (originally the East Liberty Post Office) has undergone several million dollars worth of improvements, according to Lori Moran, Vice President for Real Estate Development with Pittsburgh developer BallyMoney and Company, Inc. She says 36,000 square feet are available for lease. The building will be incorporated into the same shopping village as the new Shop ‘n Save (where Phar-Mor was) that features a Wholey’s seafood department, Jenny Lee Bakery, DeLallo Deli, and a Sarris Candies store.

Breathing new life back into the commercial district is one piece of the puzzle, and restoring the residential neighborhoods is another. Huge efforts have been made to repair the torn neighborhood fabric with new housing units. Ironically, this still involved tearing down two public housing projects—the East Mall Apartments (the one that spanned Penn Avenue) and Liberty Park Highrise—with the third, Penn Circle Highrise, scheduled for demolition in two years. But it also involves building up, and New Pennley Place contains 300 units of mixed income, three- and four-unit “mansion style” apartments developed by The Community Builders, Inc. and ELDI. Rob Stephany said he is particularly proud of this deal. “This was our first effort at tearing down a super block of rental housing and making neighborhood fabric instead. We did it in two phases so nobody was forced to relocate off site.”

CSELDI is in the planning stage for two other large-scale housing developments in East Liberty. The first is Liberty Park, a 14-acre parcel one block east of Home Depot. Stephany describes it as “mixed-income new urbanist with a neighborhood feel.” The second is Mellon’s Orchard South, the site of the former city’s detective agency. “We want this to be a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-rated neighborhood. Wholistic. This is a new mixed-income, single- family, detached kind of thing, connecting East Liberty’s existing neighborhoods into the commercial district.”

Right: New Pennley Place was the first of the new housing developments to replace dilapidated old units that created an eyesore in the neighborhood.

The core of East Liberty has suffered the most, but new enterprises are starting to draw paying customers closer and closer to the center. The Red Room Café on South Highland Avenue is attracting people across the great divide of Centre Avenue. And more patrons are calling from the 724 area code, says owner Rob Reese. “The buzz is definitely out,” claims Jen McCrady of Fox Chapel. “The menu is fabulous, but we go just for the Blue Cheese Fondue.” Next door is Abay which City Paper anointed Pittsburgh’s Best New Restaurant for its Ethiopian cuisine.

CSBob Neu, executive director of the renovated Kelly-Strayhorn Theater on Penn Avenue, was proud to point out that 14,000 people from 39 different zip codes came to see 120 performances at the Kelly-Strayhorn last year. And Shadow Lounge co-owner, Justin Strong, is building on the success of his hip performance venue and relaxed atmosphere of the blue room, by announcing a March opening for AVA, a bar and lounge with an intimate dance floor at 126 South Highland Avenue. Bill Peduto had a sneak peak on New Year’s Eve and reports that “everything is very comfortable and very laid back.”

Right Top: The intersection of South Highland Avenue and Penn Circle South, as it appears today, with the Highland Building rising high in the distance and the historic Stevenson building in the foreground.

Right Bottom: A computer-generated image of the same intersection with a proposed hotel on the site.

CSEast Liberty Presbyterian Church is an unmistakable presence in East Liberty. The latest stakeholder-driven plan by Semple Brown Design illustrates how the firm has creatively blended the church into the long-term master plan. Says Stephany, “Currently we have a church in the heart of our retail district. That’s a pretty funky condition, frankly. What we’re proposing is to turn the center and the heart of the neighborhood from a church and a curb to a church in a plaza.” Both streetscaping and landscaping will add to its appearance as a town square, according to Patrice Fowler-Searcy, Director of Mission for the church. “It will not only add to the life of the church, but the community at large.

Looking to the future, ELDI has been working with existing farmers’ markets in Highland Park and East Liberty to see if there is enough interest to create a full-fledged, indoor, yearround farmers’ market, to be called the East End Community Market. And Suzanne Thinnes, communications manager for Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, says that funds to renovate the East Liberty branch are being raised in the current capital campaign, but there is no specific timetable at this moment for making those improvements.

CSLeft: Now that the East Mall Apartments have been torn down, the view into East Liberty from Penn Avenue is unobstructed.

Community leaders are well aware of how far East Liberty’s image has fallen since its heyday. “East Liberty was a grand, grand community,” reminisces Paul Brecht, executive director of the East Liberty Chamber of Commerce. To help bring it back and take the edge off of its stigma, the chamber has partnered with ELDI to spearhead the Neighborhood Improvement District (NID), where all property owners will pay an assessment to clean the streets, remove graffiti, and provide security.

As for Penn Circle itself and all of the disorienting one-way streets, it will be seven to fifteen years before enough state, federal, and local funds are raised (more than $30 million, of which $10 million has a source already) to eliminate the circle and to reconnect East Liberty’s street grid. “The infrastructure change,” states Stephany, “is one of our biggest challenges.” Bill Peduto is hoping it will become a priority for all council members and the mayor.

CSEast Liberty has come a long way since Molly Blasier first identified it as the ideal site for Whole Foods. Naysayers used to say to her, “East Liberty?! You’ve got to be kidding!” But demographics continue to reveal a wealthy, young, and educated population within a two-mile radius, and now community stakeholders are counting on them to be smart enough to come and give East Liberty a try.

Right: The former Wheeler Paint building on Penn Avenue is being renovated for retail and office use.

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

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