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Cornering the Market on Good Design

East Liberty's latest revitalization effort avoids mistakes of the past

Cornering the Market on Good Design
Walk right in: The EastSide complex, in East Liberty.
A good building knits urban pathways together, encouraging pedestrians to move a bit further along the street, maybe to the next store or the next purchase -- any place but back to the car. Walk in either direction on Highland Avenue near Centre, for example, and you will encounter the Stevenson Building, a pleasant, vaguely neoclassical building of 1896. It has just enough renaissance detail in its arched windows and columned entry to seem slightly formal, and it curves instructively around the corner to Centre, urging pedestrians toward further exploration.

More than a century later, the role of architecture and urban design in this part of East Liberty has not been forgotten. The question, as explored in the growing EastSide development, is to what degree good design intentions can hold off the onslaught of automobiles and concrete.

To get The Home Depot to move to East Liberty in the late 1990s, the city felt compelled to offer a site swept clean of all buildings, a blank slate that allowed for a suburban-sized parking lot. The EastSide team has been shrewder, having fought hard to make the development more urban and pedestrian-friendly.

The final design results from an intensely collaborative process involving the developer, the Mosites Company, architects The Design Alliance and East Liberty Development Incorporated, a nonprofit revitalization group. Faced with a long, slender five-acre parcel of land between Centre Avenue and the East Busway, the project needed to encourage tenants to come to the neighborhood without turning it into a suburbanized desert of parking.

The EastSide complex as a whole is four buildings along Centre, where tenants include a Borders bookstore, a Walgreens, a state liquor store and other storefronts. In the first three buildings, the material palette combines the orange brick of a number of nearby structures (including the Stevenson Building) with a more modern aesthetic of expansive glass and aluminum windows. Some trendier mesh screens and corrugated metal panels appear also. It's telling that the design team had to lobby hard with tenant Walgreens to put in windows at all.

The corner building, meanwhile, is particularly lively, suiting its more prominent site. It responds to but does not imitate the Stevenson building nearby. It too has a curving wall, but the material is fiber cement board rather than masonry. The windows are offset and horizontal, rather than vertical. Unlike just about any speculative retail building you will ever see, this structure makes three-dimensional play out of its site conditions. The curving wall creates a small atrium in the ground-floor space. A smaller office space on the third floor opens to an outdoor balcony. What might have been a hidden interior stair instead finds a bit of sculptural expression on the outside -- you can go up this way if you want. This building doesn't simply adapt the Stevenson building curve; it continues the urbanistic principle of drawing pedestrians into its spaces, and it does so with unapologetically snappy modern forms.

But a key move was to put parking for 400 cars on two levels: Most chain retailers still insist on having their store entrance at the same level as automobile access. The developers, though, created an entry at the level of the Shadyside side of Highland Avenue before it descends to Centre. (A pedestrian bridge from Ellsworth across the busway is forthcoming.)

Mark Minnerly of Mosites says the team had some extra leverage, thanks to the success of the nearby Whole Foods and a profusion of new restaurants in the area. Since the neighborhood was already becoming more desirable, he recalls, "We had a capacity to push much harder in how people fit into the development."

Minnerly adds that instead of the usual ratio of six parking spaces per 1,000 square feet, they negotiated their tenants down to four. Combine this with the more city-like practice of pushing buildings out to the sidewalk, and the development becomes denser, less suburban. Says Chris Minnerly, "The project really is ultimately a hybrid."

Indeed, this development is certainly not perfect. Even after the noble battles, there is still too much parking and not enough of a designed landscape for pedestrians on the upper parking deck. ("We have to give the tenants things they want, or it doesn't happen," Mark Minnerly explains.) But by fighting hard for the right issues, the design team has raised the bar for such developments in the future. "We probably have more architecture than we need to satisfy the market," Mark Minnerly says.

Then again, the better architecture should cause the market to expand.