Walk anywhere in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, and you’ll see empty storefronts. Almost every block has at least one sign proclaiming “RETAIL SPACE FOR LEASE.” Some windows have handwritten notes thanking former customers. Other spaces have been empty for longer, their windows boarded up after years of disuse.
Before long, you’ll end up at the large, vacant lot where Penn Plaza apartments used to stand. LG Realty displaced hundreds of low-income families from the affordable housing complex before demolishing it in 2017.
Now, LG Realty plans to build 700,000 square feet of office and retail space at the former Penn Plaza site. Community members have rallied against this plan because it does not include affordable housing. But residents also worry that, if LG Realty goes through with this development, it will lead to even more empty storefronts in East Liberty.
Former Penn Plaza resident Randall Taylor raised this concern at an April 16th public meeting on the development plan. “We know in the age of Amazon that retail isn’t doing too well these days,” he said. “And we know in East Liberty, in the next block, there are four storefronts that are empty. So I don’t really know how this works.”
East Liberty’s commercial spaces weren’t always empty. In fact, it was once the third largest commercial district in Pennsylvania, according to the East Liberty Quarter Chamber of Commerce. And long after that, people still frequented small shops up and down Penn Avenue.
At a recent community meeting in East Liberty, long-term residents reminisced about “eight-foot tables lined on Penn Avenue where [they] could get a bunch of knee-high socks.” They also lamented the loss of the Shadow Lounge, a venue that according to City Paper was “legendary for its role in Pittsburgh hip hop and art in general.”
A 2017 CityLab story also paints the picture of East Liberty as a liveable, cultural hub:
Less than ten years ago, one could find a dense collection of subsidized housing for low-income and elderly households, not far from Bakery Square, in the East End hub called East Liberty. . . This housing cluster was situated by a business district once home to a bunch of pizza joints, Jamaican restaurants, sneaker shops, barbers, and other local boutiques.
That’s not to say East Liberty was perfect. By the 1990s, developers had largely abandoned it, and many residences were managed by absentee landlords or slumlords who let properties fall into disrepair. It became a hotspot for crime. But those who lived there claimed a sense of community that’s been lost in recent years — especially for black residents.
Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s executive director, Janera Solomon, said the people she used to see walking down the street in 2008 were like a family. “I didn’t have ice for my shows, I didn’t have working microphones, a lot of things. And those guys, they were here to provide support, to provide inspiration, to make me laugh, to say ‘Janera, keep going, and keep doing what you’re doing,’ and to give hugs.”
So what changed? In the early 2000s, developers looked at the high crime rates and low-income population and saw a chance to swoop in and “fix” the neighborhood (hello, white savior complex). East Liberty Development Inc. bought a bunch of the homes that housed criminals and hired off-duty police officers to crack down on crime.
Other developers came in and demolished East Liberty’s Section-8 high rises, saying it was a terrible place to live and that it fostered crime. Hundreds of predominantly black residents were displaced as a result. Later, a Target was built on the site. And across the street, a $150 million transit center was built with market-rate housing, commercial space, parking garages, and more.
“Now, when I walk that corner, there’s no one giving me hugs,” said Solomon. “There are barely any smiles. And there are places that I walk into, on that block, where people look at me like I’m a foreigner.”
Alethea Sims, who was displaced from the high rises, has also been speaking against gentrification throughout East Liberty. At a March 21 public meeting, she said of the new apartments in East Liberty: “They look nice, but you can’t get in them — unless you’re working there to clean.”
Watch Alethea Sims talk about her displacement from one of East Liberty’s former high rises: HERE
Nearby mixed-income projects are in the works, but their affordable units — 37 at Mellon’s Orchard South, 40 at the former Congregation B’nai Israel, 45 at the AR3 Park Edge — don’t add up to the 519 units in the high rises or the 312 units that were at Penn Plaza. And with fewer people living in the area to support the local businesses, more storefronts become vacant.
“On one side, you have empty first floor retail,” an East Liberty resident said at the April 16 meeting. “On the other side, you have a property that had a proposed AutoZone. That’s not bustling property in my mind, or anybody else’s. So when we talk about bustling retail, it’s all relative. And if history is any indicator, I can’t help but be skeptical.”
The proposed AutoZone he mentioned is another plan LG Realty has failed to get off the ground. Across Negley Avenue from the Penn Plaza site lies a boarded up blue building. It used to hold Babyland & Kidsroom until the store moved locations six years ago. The building has been empty ever since.
Unfortunately, LG Realty’s plan for an AutoZone ran into legal issues. Now, the building will remain empty unless LG Realty proposes a new plan for it.
As for the company’s plans for its large space at the Penn Plaza site?
“You’re right. Retail’s not doing very well in East Liberty,” said Neville Fernandes, an architect working with LG Realty on the plan. “This is not the 1920’s.”
Still, LG Realty attorney Jonathan Kamin expects all the space to be filled once phase 2 of its construction is completed, 5 years down the line. The company has already discussed plans with at least one major retail tenant: Whole Foods Market.
In the summer of 2016, Whole Foods announced plans to open a store at the former Penn Plaza site, which is less than a mile away from its existing Pittsburgh location. But it later pulled out of the plan after public backlash.
“Until the issues are resolved, Whole Foods does not plan to move forward with the project at this time,” said a representative for the store, according to the Post-Gazette.
Now, there’s growing evidence suggesting Whole Foods is still interested in the Penn Plaza site. According to a Post-Gazette story, the current land development plan includes just the right amount of retail space for Whole Foods to open its doors.
“It’s probably no coincidence that some 50,500 square feet of space is devoted to retail in the first phase of a revised redevelopment plan for the former Penn Plaza site in East Liberty,” writes Mark Belko. “That just happens to be the amount of space Whole Foods Market would need to open a store at the spot.”
Additionally, Whole Foods’ list of stores in development includes Pittsburgh. And multiple PPSA members cite private conversations — including with a head of LG Realty and with city officials — suggesting the chain is moving ahead on its plans.
Whole Foods hasn’t responded to requests to confirm its position on the new development. But if it does move into LG Realty’s proposed development, that would mean yet another empty storefront in East Liberty as it vacates the current Centre Avenue location.
LG Realty’s development plan now needs to go to the City Planning Commission, which will determine whether it meets certain review criteria. Opponents of the plan say it doesn’t meet these criteria, because it will not “create a favorable environmental, social and economic impact on the City.”
In a letter to the Planning Commission, Penn Plaza Support and Action writes that “a retail & office project with no identified anchor tenant in a neighborhood with high retail & office vacancy does nothing to demonstrate positive ‘social and economic impact.’”
Until then, anyone can submit their thoughts on the plan to the Commission by emailing email@example.com.