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Development: Planned Squirrel Hill project could mean losing what's already there 

A planned development could dramatically reshape the corner of Forward and Murray avenues. Its developers say it will revitalize the area, but some patrons are more worried about what Squirrel Hill might lose.

"This street just shows a part of Pittsburgh that embraces diversity," says Kelly Barone, as she gathers at Forward Avenue's Tango Café on Aug. 12, with a group of likeminded customers. "To squash that sends the wrong message to our city."

The Argentine coffee shop is one of a cluster of businesses that will have to move or close if developers go through with their plan to construct Forward Square, an estimated $40 million hotel, restaurant, retail and condominium project.

The Forward Square project would replace the closed Poli's restaurant on Murray Avenue and the buildings that house the businesses on Forward, up to and including the Squirrel Hill Theatre. The Gay and Lesbian Community Center on Forward Avenue would also have to move.

"Pittsburgh can take great notice of the Steelers, Pirates, Penguins and casinos," says Joseph Divack, talking over a table and 20 pages of petition signatures to save Tango Café. "Why can't we take notice of this small, special place?"

Developers Cambridge Venture Partners plan to install a nine-story building, with a restaurant on Murray Avenue, three floors of hotel rooms, and an estimated 20 condos on the top two floors. Cambridge Venture Partners is a collaboration of R.E. Crawford Construction; Russell Mills, of the Mills & Henry law firm; and Steve Davis, of Pennsylvania Commercial Real Estate.

The Forward-Murray corner "is the portal to Squirrel Hill," says R.E. Crawford Executive Vice President Tom Chunchick. "We're trying to give it something that would really enhance that entranceway."

Chunchick says reaction from the community has been largely positive. He says about 250 people turned out for a community meeting on the project -- and many approved of the new development.

"I would call the overall tenor of the people in Squirrel Hill very positive toward the project," agrees Pittsburgh City Council President Doug Shields, who represents Squirrel Hill. Indeed, some are hopeful that the new development will improve the corner, which sits at a treacherous five-way intersection that includes access to the Parkway East.

"Traffic now is chaos," says Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, of the nearby Shaare Torah Congregation. "The city will do nothing. The city has done nothing. These guys have a vested interest in making sure that the traffic will get fixed."

Developers hope to have zoning-board approval for their project within a couple of months. In the meantime, Chunchick says, they met with the owners of Tango Café on Aug. 14, "to help them find assistance and guidance" in relocating. He says Tango is the only tenant they've sat down with.

"When I walked into the café, [owner] Liliana [Petruy] said to me, 'I just want to tell you, I'm not trying to stop your development. I just want to save my business,'" Chunchick says. "We would like to see that prevail."

But he can't pledge any specifics yet, and that worries Petruy's daughter and business partner Liliana Gorri. "Basically, they say they have an interest in helping us out, but I don't have anything in writing," Gorri says. "You have to be skeptical until you see some kind ... of paper."

Gorri and Petruy opened Tango Café in December 2002. Devotees praise the coffee shop for its atmosphere as well as its beverages. The café hosts music and dancing, in addition to Spanish classes and discussion groups.

Chunchick says they have completed sales agreements with the owner of the former Poli's building, and the buildings along Forward that house Pizza Amier, Tango Café, U.S. Professional Karate, the Squirrel Hill Theatre, and the Gay and Lesbian Community Center.

It's unclear what will happen to the GLCC – which hosts youth nights at its Forward Avenue office, along with providing other resources and activities for the GLBT community.

"We've been meeting and working on our plan for where we will go when and if the building is razed," says GLCC chairperson Rick Allison. Whatever happens, though, "We've made a commitment to stay in the city," he says -- adding that, if they have to move, they will look for a building that is on a bus line and is handicap accessible: The current office is on the second floor. The GLCC will post an update on its Web site (www.glccpgh.org) in the next few days, according to Allison.

Among the GLCC's business neighbors, Tango Café isn't alone in generating a wistful sentiment from its clientele. "Those of us who like cinema will be screwed," says Greenfield resident Bob Crosby, pointing to the variety of films an independent movie house provides in a city that has seen many theaters shut their doors "We're going to be losing a venue that's not going to be replaced." Richard Stern – of Stern Enterprises, which operates the theater – could not be reached for comment.

The blow from the theater's departure is tempered by the fact that Squirrel Hill has another movie theater, the Manor, which is just blocks away and is also operated by Stern Enterprises. Still, moviegoers like Crosby will morn the loss of a big-little guy in the age of the megaplex: The Squirrel Hill Theatre's six screens allowed it to show Hollywood hits alongside first-run independent and foreign films.

"I'm sort of a typical Pittsburgher in that I don't totally like change," says Crosby, who used to run the projector for a University of Pittsburgh film series back in the '70s. "I'm not real bad about it, but I don't always see change as good."

click to enlarge The Tango Caf is one of several business that could be displaced during the Poli redevelopment project at the intersection of Murray and Forward avenues.
  • The Tango Caf is one of several business that could be displaced during the Poli redevelopment project at the intersection of Murray and Forward avenues.

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