At Liberty to Speak | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

At Liberty to Speak

After a half-century of having decisions made for them, East Liberty residents have a say in the future of the city's "second downtown"

At Liberty to Speak
Andrew Butcher of GTECH (center) helps neighborhood kids build a fence. GTECH, a nonprofit, is helping plant biofuel crops in East Liberty.

Nearly three years ago, one dolly load at a time, Alethea Sims carted off 20 years' worth of belongings from the East Mall, the federally subsidized high-rise she'd made her home for two decades. Sims was among the 300 residents living in the complex, one of three high-rise apartment buildings that had come to define East Liberty's skyline.

"It was home to me," recalls Sims. "People looked out for each other. It was like one big family."

But if the building Sims had lived in was a community unto itself, it was also vilified as both a symbol and a cause of the neighborhood's downfall. After straddling Penn Avenue for decades, East Mall was the target of a gleeful paintball game in which city officials participated to celebrate its imminent destruction. Since the 17-story structure was reduced to rubble, in 2005, its disappearance from the skyline has opened up not just new vistas, but new possibilities for an area once hailed as the city's second downtown.

For the building's long-time residents, feelings about the future are mixed. On one hand, they are encouraged that the neighborhood where they've lived through times thick and thin is now being rediscovered -- by chain retailers, grass-roots businesses like the Shadow Lounge and area restaurants, and now by housing developers and new residents. Still, they wonder what their place will be amidst the new activity.

"Some of the places they're bringing are sort of expensive for low-income people. We know where we could afford to shop," says another long-time resident Dolores Morris, a widow living on Social Security.

Like Sims, Morris was displaced from East Mall after two decades there. She was temporarily relocated to nearby New Pennley Place in the spring of 2005, and is awaiting the construction of new housing for those displaced by the demolition of the high-rises. But whatever reservations Sims and Morris may have about the future are outweighed by their enthusiasm. Both are waiting to move back into the new housing planned for the East Mall site.

"It's nice to see it to be active again," Morris says, "because it was a ghost town."

At Liberty to Speak
Alethea Sims, standing outside the door of a more recent addition to the neighborhood
In a heyday that spanned the first half of the 20th century, East Liberty was both a starting point for new arrivals and an entertainment and shopping mecca. One end of the neighborhood was dominated by the bustling thoroughfares of Penn and Centre avenues and Broad Street. The other was buttressed by densely populated streets, such as Mellon, St. Clair and Euclid, which connect to the nearby predominantly residential neighborhoods of Friendship and Highland Park.

The Penn Circle area surrounding East Liberty Presbyterian Church was said to be the state's third-largest shopping district, after Philadelphia's Center City and Downtown Pittsburgh. What Pittsburghers now know as Motor Square Garden was once a thriving marketplace and, later, a site for sporting events and other entertainment. Sims was born and raised in nearby Larimer, but has fond memories of Christmas shopping in East Liberty as a kid.

Old-timers can readily rattle off the names of the many cinemas that lit up the streets through the night: Sheridan, Enright, Cameraphone. Gene Kelly, who grew up in the neighborhood, was a regular marquee name. Today, the only surviving theater space, Kelly-Strayhorn, has been renamed partly after him; the other names live on as breakfast menu items at Anthom, a neighborhood diner.

Like many other urban neighborhoods, East Liberty had been inhabited by a succession of immigrants. By 1930, it was principally an Italian neighborhood, though with a rising black population: According to Lives of Their Own: Blacks, Italians, and Poles in Pittsburgh: 1930-1960, the area was 70 percent Italian and 20 percent black at the time. And while there were ethnic tensions in such neighborhoods throughout the city, Lives of Their Own notes, "The degree of peaceful interaction that existed ... prior to the 1930s has been underestimated."

Still, tensions worsened over the following decades, and "white flight" began to accelerate. During the 1950s, one representative census tract went from under 14 percent African American to 54 percent black.

And as the suburbs boomed, East Liberty business owners felt the threat of suburban malls looming. In 1960, city officials, already preoccupied with renewal efforts in the predominantly black Lower Hill District and elsewhere, decided to try their hand in East Liberty. With the federal government paying for the bulk of the estimated $60 million cost, the bulldozer was set in motion.

By the time demolition was complete, nearly half of the 254 acres that made up East Liberty's commercial heart and residential blocks had been flattened.

To remake a neighborhood seen at the time to be choked with slums and mom-and-pop stores, the planners made bold strokes. Streets that connected the tight-knit residential blocks to the main thoroughfare, Penn Avenue, were amputated. A pedestrian mall was installed. Fronting the mall, and serving as a signpost for the remade neighborhood, was the fortress-like East Mall, with its 17 stories of apartments for moderate-income families towering over the traffic on Penn Avenue. A traffic circle was configured to contain the then-sprawling shopping area within the more concentrated bazaar the mall was meant to be.

The conventional wisdom is that East Liberty was the victim of a top-down process with no citizen input. The truth, though, is somewhat more complex.

In comparison to -- and in part because of -- the notorious razing of the Hill District, East Liberty's redevelopment featured an increased emphasis on historic preservation. That's one reason the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater -- the former Regent Theater, built in 1914 -- still stands. Renewal efforts also provided for green spaces along traffic dividers and elsewhere, and benches were dispersed throughout the mall.

Moreover, "the now much-maligned East Liberty project was the first to involve extensive citizen participation," urban historian Roy Lubove wrote in his two-volume Twentieth-Century Pittsburgh.

The citizens who participated, however, were a highly select group. The neighborhood was represented by the East Liberty Citizens Renewal Council, which Lubove hails as the "first of its kind in Pittsburgh," while conceding that because it was "[d]ominated by neighborhood business and institutional interests, it was not a 'grass roots' organization." The council was controlled by local merchants and bankers, and was headed by Herbert Mansmann, who owned a department store bearing his name.

At Liberty to Speak
A tenant lounge at Fairfield, East liberty's next-generation housing development
Perhaps not surprisingly, the resulting project was a sort of citified mall complex: a pedestrian center with benches for shoppers, anchored by major retailers like Sears, and surrounded by what planners hoped was an auto-friendly circulation pattern. That vision was combined with a housing plan that was in accord with the precepts of post-war modernism -- which dictated that tall, monolithic buildings were the way to improve housing conditions for the masses.

"It was an attempt to make a livable neighborhood," says Bob Pease, chief of the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority in the 1960s and architect of East Liberty's renewal.

"Based on market analysis [at the time], we did the best we could with the knowledge that we had," Pease now says. "I'm never afraid to say we made a mistake.

"The high-rises were very successful in the beginning," Pease recalls. "Occupancy rates were high."

So were expectations. The high-rises epitomized what a 1970 Pittsburgh Press report called East Liberty: "a laboratory for experimenting with new ideas and the developing methods of urban renewal."

During the 1960s, high-rise living was still a novelty here. Pittsburghers might have been accustomed to living in houses perched on hilltops, but never in buildings more than a few stories above ground.

And they didn't necessarily take to it. In 1980, when she was 27 years old, Sims had dreamed of having a house of her own. Instead, she and her mother ended up moving into a 16th-floor apartment in East Mall. "It was months before I could look out the window," recalls Sims.

An engineer by training, Pease placed his faith in a good plan. But while the road patterns looked good on the drawing board, the circular roadway and its radial one-way feeder streets soon confounded even those who frequented the area. The new traffic pattern, as a Pittsburgh magazine article noted in December 1983, made sense only when viewed from above.

But the project "did not cause the decline of [East Liberty's] business district, as often claimed," Lubove contends. Rather, it "hastened [decline] by wrapping the area in a confusing mall and arterial road configuration. Neighborhood business districts were probably undermined less by renewal, however ill-conceived, than by the emergence of suburban shopping malls, as well as substantial depopulation, poverty and crime."

At Liberty to Speak
Fairfield, a new mixed-income housing development
Still, in trying to compete with suburban shopping malls, planners made the mistake of trying to turn a city neighborhood into one.

Moe Coleman, who as a social-work student worked in the field in East Liberty in the 1960s, was a community organizer when land acquisition and relocation began. He's now a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh.

"The [planners], with their suburban and middle-class values, didn't understand a way of life that has merit to it," Coleman says.

Once again, East Liberty is becoming "a laboratory for experimenting with new ideas" about urban redevelopment. But this time, the approaches being devised are intended to reverse the mistakes made during the last experiment.

Now, the process is not just about bringing businesses back, but also putting heads together.

"The vision of East Liberty is being crafted in this process," says Nathan Wildfire, of East Liberty Development Inc. (ELDI), the community group responsible for the neighborhood's redevelopment.

While it may seem as though the latest round of renewal happened overnight, the process of soliciting community input has been going on for a decade. In concert with residents and other stakeholders, ELDI hatched a community plan for the area in 1999.

Some changes had already begun by that point. The pedestrian mall, once thought to be the modern innovation that would revive business, was undone in the early 1990s. Once-closed streets were reopened, facilitating car traffic that the original renewal effort had shunned.

The 1999 plan extended that work: broadening the mix of businesses, reconnecting the residential streets to Penn Circle and linking residents to jobs and training opportunities in the area.

To be sure, the change began slowly. Among the first of the new arrivals was Home Depot, which moved into the area in 2000. The trend really took hold when the organic-food grocery chain, Whole Foods, moved in along Centre Avenue. The success of Whole Foods, which marked its fifth anniversary in October, began to attract an influx of businesses serving a similar clientele. Mosites Corporation, the developer who lured Whole Foods to the area, used the market's success to attract an influx of businesses serving a similar clientele. Over the past two years, a spa, an upscale wine store, Borders

Books & Music and Starbucks Coffee all cropped up within barely a block of Whole Foods, as part of the EastSide complex.

Now that "green" design is all the rage, East Liberty's redevelopment plans increasingly incorporate environmentally friendly initiatives. Last spring, in a residential section of East Liberty known as Mellon Orchard, a pilot project was launched by the U.S. Green Building Council. The project aims to test sustainable development strategies. Just a few blocks from Penn Circle, biofuel crops are being planted in vacant lots. In-fill housing prototypes are being designed to restore the original character and dwellings of the residential blocks. Certain streets will be resurfaced to eliminate run-off. Traffic islands and thoroughfares will be landscaped with low-maintenance and drought-resistant plants.

"The community plan of 1999 is responsible for what's happening now," says Wildfire. Now, with most of the original goals met, "It's about time for the people in East Liberty to contribute to an aligned vision again."

In June, ELDI kicked off the community planning process by convening quarterly meetings of residents, business owners and social-service providers. Those who attend are encouraged to join various task forces, which focus on different aspects of neighborhood redevelopment. The task forces are on workforce, youth engagement, safe neighborhoods, housing, community health, small businesses, commercial core, and parks and recreation.

Participants are asked to identify the problems and areas of concern. In follow-up meetings they are expected to brainstorm for potential solutions, with an emphasis on "outside of the box" inputs, according to ELDI officials. Further, members of each task force are encouraged to draw up action plans and timelines for implementing such plans. Finally, each task force will elect a spokesperson to present its plan at the next community-planning meeting. The upshot, say Wildfire and other backers, is that urban planners no longer charge themselves with sole responsibility of prescribing solutions. Community planning is now of the people and by the people

And the people do have some concerns about the wildly trumpeted success of recent development. Too much of the shopping is expensive, they say, and too much of the housing is for rent.

"It's a little out of our reach," says resident Dolores Morris about the retail that has opened up in the area. "I would like to see something more down-to-earth," like the Sears store that dominated the neighborhood's retail scene in the 1980s. While Sears may not have been a destination store like Whole Foods, it did provide affordable clothing and other necessities to people in the area.

Residents also say they hope room can be made for more single-family for-sale housing -- the kind that was demolished during the city's first urban-renewal project, and never fully restored.

In the current redevelopment plans, the emphasis is on finding new homes for the former residents of torn-down high-rises who want to stay in the area.

East Mall and Liberty Park, a complex of low-slung homes and one high-rise, have come down. The area's only remaining high-rise, Penn Circle, will be vacated by the end of the year. So far, only the Liberty Park site has been rebuilt: It is now a 124-unit mixed-income rental development. Roughly two-thirds of its apartments were reserved for former high-rise residents; the balance, about 40 units, are market-rate units. The new development is named Fairfield, after an old street obliterated during the urban renewal. All of the affordable units, which housing officials say attracted nearly 1,000 phone calls, were quickly filled.

Most of the developments being planned so far are mixed-income rentals, a step up from merely warehousing the poor in restricted units. But Sims, a leader of a coalition of former high-rise tenants, says she'd like to expand the housing stock to include for-purchase homes.

"It'd be nice to see that kind of mix, something for everyone," says Sims. "That's what the East Liberty revitalization is about. Don't make another low-rent district."

Planners see the challenge.

"Are we building a community of two different classes in the same neighborhood? I don't think so," says Rob Stephany, who became deputy executive director at the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority this summer, after nearly 10 years at ELDI overseeing commercial developments.

At Liberty to Speak
Andrew Butcher of GTECH (center) helps neighborhood kids build a fence. GTECH, a nonprofit, is helping plant biofuel crops in East Liberty.
Redevelopment officials are caught in a tough spot, however. "In East Liberty, the first move was several hundred units of affordable homes" for the original residents, says Stephany -- and almost none of those residents make enough money to buy their own homes.

Economics are also unfavorable on the supply side of the equation. The tightening of the home-mortgage market nationwide keeps developers and builders in a wait-and-see mode. A plan to build 84 condominiums inside the Highland Building, one of the Penn Circle area's most prominent structures, was recently scrapped. (According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the developer, the Zambrano Corporation, now plans to convert the building to office space instead.)

So for now, those looking to buy new homes -- and those who believe new for-sale housing will help anchor the area -- must look elsewhere.

When she was looking to buy a small house last year, Hilary Brown had hoped to find something affordable in East Liberty. She was disappointed and ended up purchasing a two-bedroom in Lawrenceville for $62,000, half as much as what she found listed in East Liberty.

"People want to buy into the neighborhood," says Brown, who is the outreach and events manager at the Union Project, a nearby converted church space which provides meeting space and other resources to community-rebuilding efforts. "There are not enough options for people to come in and buy to fix up the homes."

But ELDI, city officials and the developers involved say they're not about to repeat the mistakes of the past. That resolve is revealed in the code name of the development plans: called "nabru lawener" -- "urban renewal" spelled backward.

"That's what we're trying to do," says Mark Minnerly, a developer with Mosites Company, which oversees EastSide. "We had to laugh, because no one can say [the codename]."

After Minnerly and Steve Mosites Jr., owner of Mosites Company, brought Whole Foods to the neighborhood, they recognized they would have to keep at it. "We knew we had to do more to be successful, not one- or two-shot deals," says Mosites. And each of those deals requires considerable patience. With EastSide, for example, the developers moved slowly -- over a half-dozen years -- to acquire 14 parcels of land needed to build the complex along the Baum Boulevard corridor.

But moving slowly can be a good thing. "Urban renewal to me is characterized by huge sweeping moves," says Minnerly.

Instead of breaking up street grids, Minnerly says, this redevelopment is about reconnecting. This ethos is embedded in the name "EastSide" itself. Some in the community, Minnerly acknowledges, suspect the name is an attempt to erase the negative association people may have with East Liberty. But the developers, he says, see the name reflecting their attempts to reconnect East Liberty with more-prosperous Shadyside. In fact, the developers are currently awaiting state approval to build a pedestrian bridge over railroad tracks and the East Busway, so that visitors can walk over from the trendy boutiques of Ellsworth Avenue.

"Part of the appeal about East Liberty is the authenticity of the place," says Stephany. The trick, he says, is to restore the commercial core while keeping the feel intact. The inherent weakness of urban renewal lies in the incontrovertible fact that the intricate social fabric of a neighborhood, once ripped apart by the bulldozer, cannot be mended by the best-laid plan. This time, Stephany and others are confident that they're doing things the right way.

"It shows that revitalization can be done without forcing out people. This is not an exclusive success, but an inclusive success."

At Liberty to Speak
Steve Mosites Jr. at EastSide, the development