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Charlie Stewart
A Work in Progress
An update on the latest developments along the Baum-Centre corridor
Summer 2009

CSClose your eyes, pretend you are at the wheel of your car (turn your radio up and your cell phone off), and take an imaginary drive through history and then back to the future, starting at Penn Circle and heading west down the Baum Boulevard-Centre Avenue corridor to “see” the latest developments along the main arteries of the East End.

To know and appreciate the uniqueness of the dual corridors of Baum Boulevard and Centre Avenue today requires a look back to the past. Wayyyy back…

In 1758 General John Forbes of England had his military units build a trail from Chambersburg to Pittsburgh during the French and IndianWar. It was later known as the Pennsylvania Road. In 1816, Alexander Negley, whose property included some of present-day East Liberty, made certain that the Greensburg-Pittsburgh turnpike, the road that evolved from the Forbes trail, came through East Liberty to enhance commerce there.

In 1913, when a group of automobile enthusiasts envisioned the first transcontinental highway from New York to San Francisco, the route selected for the approach to Pittsburgh was the path of least resistance on existing roads, including the Forbes Trail-Greensburg Pike. This crosscountry route was named the Lincoln Highway, and when highways were numbered in 1925, much of it became U.S. 30.

CSIt came right down Penn Avenue to Baum Boulevard and then to Bigelow boulevard—roads that had formerly served the horse and buggy trade and now served the early motorists.

“So, if you were driving across Pennsylvania to get to Pittsburgh,” explains Rob Pfaffmann of Pfaffmann & Associates, local architects and urban planners, “you would have come on Route 30 to get to East Liberty, coming through east Pittsburgh. And all the auto dealerships and auto-oriented development that existed on auto row were part of that early growth from the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, along that traditional road corridor into the city.”

And thus exists the current nature of the Baum- Centre corridor—the wide streets, the fast pace of traffic, and the hulking historic buildings overhanging the railroad tracks that were once used to supply the auto dealerships with brand new Packard Roadsters and Model T Fords.

Nearly 100 years later, the community wrestles with ways to preserve the corridor’s heritage as it dares to change its complexion before our very eyes. No less important to the fabric and vibrancy of the city than it once was, the Baum-Centre corridor now serves the educational and medical communities that pervade the East End, and we continue to witness its potential unfold.

Building on the success of Whole Foods Market and the entire EastSide complex, now a national urban model that has provided locals with not only options, convenience, and quality, but also hundreds of full-time jobs, theMosites Company is now working on the last pieces of the puzzle for its end of the Baum-Centre corridor.

The proposed Target store at the easternmost end of the corridor is proceeding. “Target’s current forecast to open is the summer of 2011, based on current planning,” says developer Steve Mosites, president of Mosites Company.

The first step is creating a five-acre site, with the implosion of the Penn Circle South highrise— 162 units of low-income housing vacated more than a year ago. Normally, Target builds on a 10- acre site, so this particular urban version will be a two-story structure with indoor parking, lobby, and elevators at the street level and the 156,000-squarefoot store on the second floor. (As a comparison, the single-story Home Depot in East Liberty is 95,000 square feet.)

Target feels that the Mosites Company-led EastSide team is the right public-private partnership to help carry out this store.

“Target understands the significant commitment by our community partners; the Ravenstahl, Onorato and Rendell administrations; and many other colleagues at the state level, like Senator Ferlo, who are all coordinating to deliver on their commitments to build the public infrastructure in East Liberty that is necessary to carry out the project,” says Mark Minnerly, Mosites Company director of real estate development.

Part of that needed infrastructure is the conversion of Penn Circle East and Penn Circle South from a one-way traffic pattern to two-way, which Minnerly calls “the backbone of this entire repositioning of the East Liberty district.” Then there is the reconfiguration of the bus loop and the partnership with the Port Authority to build a transit

center that will integrate the land currently occupied by the bus loop with adjacent land. The EastSide-Port Authority joint venture will be the first “transit-oriented development” in the East End—a whole complex between the Stevenson Building and the busway that will serve the district and commuters withmore intuitive commuter connections, as well as include retail shops, commercial space, and parking facilities.

While you are patiently waiting for all of that to happen over the next couple of years, go and enjoy some cupcakes at the award-winning Vanilla Pastry Studio on Penn Circle South. Get them while they last. April Gruver (a.k.a. the Sugar Fairy) and her four full-time pastry chefs sell out of them almost every day.

Across from the Vanilla Pastry Studio sits a triangular building at Highland and Centre (technically still Penn Circle South). It is adjacent to the historic Highland Building, built by industrialist Henry Clay Frick in 1910. The much-anticipated Homewood Suites-Hampton Inn complex that was to have been built on these two properties is now in limbo. However, as Rob Stephany, executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which owns the Highland Building and is acquiring the adjacent site, explains, “We are still very interested in doing the project, and we are now looking for another developer to build the hotels.”

CSFarther down Centre, at Aiken, lies littleknown Morrow Park, the only significant green space along the corridor—although hardly very green and scheduled for a much-needed facelift.

“It’s going to be vastly improved,” says Shelly Martz, the neighborhood planner for the city of Pittsburgh planning department. “People don’t even realize it’s a park. We are going to clean it up, add lighting and benches, and make it a nicer area to be in.”

CS Nearby, Café Sam on Baum is at the nexus of all the surrounding neighborhoods—Shadyside, Bloomfield, Friendship, East Liberty, and Oakland. “The neighborhoods all come together right outside this window,” says owner Andy Zins, pointing outside from the second floor of his restaurant.

“And a lot of the neighborhood meetings have taken place here. It’s a natural place to bring everybody together.” Zins, who has owned the restaurant since 1987, has attended many of those meetings as an active member of the Baum/Centre Initiative, a community-based organization that provides a forumfor representation by all of the surrounding neighborhood groups to present their perspectives on the impact of future developments.

And much of the community has been fretting over the fiveDon Allen parcels of land that lie at the busy intersection of Baum and Liberty Avenue. Owner Richard Voelker had drawn up ambitious plans for what was called Baum-Liberty Crossing, originally conceived as a $230 million, seven-story, mixed-use development that included condominiums, a hotel, and retail and office space. For any number of reasons, including a lack of community support for the predicted traffic patterns from the project and then, subsequently, the current economic climate, the project is on hold, at least temporarily.

CSWhen asked if the community-based, multiperspective process worked well in this instance, Zins replies, “Yes and no. They weren’t able to proceed with the development, so from that perspective, I guess not. But on the other hand, it was driven by the neighborhood and it worked out the way it worked out.”

One of the long-standing voices in the neighborhood belongs to Orestis “Art” Velisaris, who has owned Ritter’s Diner with his three brothers since 1966. Ritter’s sits next to one of the vacant Don Allen lots.

Velisaris knows change.

“Through the years there have been so many changes, it’s unbelievable,” he says—even though change is hardly a buzzword in his 24-hour diner, where full breakfasts and homemade soups and meatloaves have been staples since day one. “I’d have to say we are about the oldest business in the neighborhood. Samson Buick, Don Allen, and other small businesses have all phased out through the years.”

Regarding Voelker’s project, Velisaris has chosen to let it work itself out though the city and the neighborhood processes. But he remains openminded. “The proposed hotel and office building and condominiums are fine withme,” he says. “I have no objections. Changes are always good. It’s better than having an empty parking lot. Some people might think it’s too congested. If you ask me, that’s silly. I mean, when you have business and it attracts people, there’s bound to be some congestion. If you don’t have congestion, then you don’t have business.”

Voelker is in the process of reworking his proposed development and says, “We are really not in any position to give any details, but we should have something shortly.” Proceeding west down Baum to Morewood Avenue brings one to what most of us have always called the Papermart Building, but is more accurately the Ford Motor Building—an historic building where, from 1915 to 1932, final assembly was done on car chassis shipped from Detroit.

CS “UPMC purchased the building two years ago,” says Frank Raczkiewicz, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s director ofmedia relations. It’s one of several properties the health systemhas been accumulating along both Baumand Centre over the past few years, with an eye toward expanding the Hillman Cancer Center, but it’s the only property with a building of historical significance—a building worth preserving rather than razing.

“With grants exceeding $150 million for cancer research, the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) and UPMC Cancer Centers are working with various philanthropies and sources to secure the funds necessary to adapt it for use as a cancer research facility,” says Raczkiewicz.

“We are really happy that UPMC, thanks to some of the things that we have done, has decided to preserve the Ford Motor Building,” says Lenore Williams, chairperson for the Baum/Centre Initiative.

“Tome, that’s just a win win all around,” agrees Pfaffmann, a member of the Baum/Centre Initiative. “You’ve got a great historic building where you can put in a high-tech lab.”

The good news is over 1,000 cancer researchers will be moving in one day. The bad news is that Papermart was forced to move out. “I can’t tell you howmuch I loved that location,” says ownerMichael Paul, whose lease expired. “I have such good memories.” Paul has six other locations surrounding Pittsburgh, but still hopes to open another store in the East End. “I know I have an established clientele in the area,” he says. “The party will continue!”

The availability of paper products may be on the decline along Baum and Centre these days, but banks are on the rise, including the latest one under construction at the corner of Centre and Morewood Avenue—a LEED-certified branch of Fidelity Bank, scheduled to open this summer.

CS“We are a homegrown community bank,” says Tony Rocco, Senior Vice President of Community Banking for Fidelity, “and we just felt there was a good opportunity in the corridor where we will be able to serve the types of customers that we aremost comfortable with—small business retail customers, the workers in the UPMC centers, and the students at the colleges. It was just a good fit for us all around, and we hope to be part of the growth that’s happening in the area.”

One block over, at Morewood and Baum, Giant Eagle’s GetGo is about to grow. It will soon be undergoing what they call in the construction business a “scrape and rebuild,” involving razing the existing structure and building a new, larger version of the convenience store, but without the WetGo car wash. “Once all approvals have been granted,” says Giant Eagle spokesperson Dick Roberts, “we hope to begin construction sometime during the summer.”

CSProceeding west along Baum, on the right is the former Packard Motor Company building, which three years ago was totally transformed into a gleaming Mercedes-Benz dealership—part of the Bobby Rahal Automotive Group—at a cost of $12.5 million.

“It’s been a good location for us,” says Gregg Szabatura, general manager of Mercedes-Benz of Pittsburgh. “We had one of our best months ever recently. People are being more cautious about their buying decisions, but we still have buyers willing to buy and spend money on upscale vehicles.”

Equally suitable as a modern-day dealership, the 125,000-square-foot, five-story building features an elevator that used to transport Packards between floors and now convenientlymoves the latest $500,000 SLRMercedes-Benz hand-built sports car for willing buyers.

With the area’s favorable demographics— 100,000 residents making over $80,000 a year and 86% of that population having a higher education— others can’t help but notice the potential too.

Guy Totino, president of Polaris Real Estate Equities, instantly recognized the corridor as being ripe for a mixed-use, residential and retail project similar to those he has done in other college towns, like Indianapolis and Lexington.

CSTotino, who is from Pittsburgh but now lives in Cleveland, went to Duquesne University in the 1970s and remembers heading to Oakland on Friday and Saturday nights. Five or six years ago, he returned to his old stomping grounds and drove through the western end of the Baum- Centre corridor.

“I found it to be exactly the same as it was back in the ’70s and ’80s,” he says. “The fact that Thirsty’s was still open was incredible to me. So I just knew there was an opportunity based on what we have done for other college towns across the country. But the challenge in Oakland was finding a parcel big enough to develop on.”

Totino found his ideal site at the corner of North Craig Street and Centre Avenue. Today, with the city’s approvals in hand, he is now cautiously optimistic about completing the financing for The Chelsea (named for his daughter), a 16- story project on 1.4 acres, with 336 mainly twobedroom apartment units and 25,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space at a cost of $60 million.

“The next boomis going to be when this Polaris development takes off,” says Bill Peduto, city councilman for District 8. “The Centre and Craig area is prime. It’s always been ignored. It is and should be, as you are coming off Bigelow, the entranceway to Oakland. It should be a grand entrance.”

And the future for the corridor as a whole?

“I would like the Baum-Centre corridor to respect its historic past as automobile row and the different architectural styles that came with all those wonderful old dealerships,” says the councilman. “I would like to see an adaptive reuse of all of that into the new economy, which will be based on the educational and medical communities. The Baum- Centre corridor should exemplify the East End through the quality of the buildings that are placed there. And we should hold everyone up to a certain standard, and let everyone else know that all future.


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


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