East Liberty residents question city concessions to Penn Plaza owners | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

East Liberty residents question city concessions to Penn Plaza owners

“We should not be giving away any piece of public land up for private development.”

The Penn Plaza Apartments deal may be done, but that doesn’t mean everyone is happy about it.

After receiving eviction notices in July by the complex’s owners, Pennley Park South (a subsidiary of LG Realty, which is owned by the Gumberg family), residents launched an effort to hold off evictions from the below-market-rate apartments. Last week, Mayor Bill Peduto’s office announced an agreement that mandates that the owners pay residents’ relocation fees and establishes affordable-housing percentages in sections of East Liberty.

But according to some local residents, the agreement includes concessions to the developer that make it far from an equitable victory.

Sallyann Kluz, an East Liberty resident, believes the agreement includes some questionable clauses, including details about potentially selling the public park next to Penn Plaza to the Gumbergs.

“This is an asset,” says Kluz. “We should not be giving away any piece of public land up for private development.”

Enright Parklet is a small park with two basketball courts and a playground. Kluz says the park is used for basketball tournaments and picnics and is one of the few public green spaces currently in East Liberty. A Facebook page protesting the potential sale of the park, started by a group of residents including Kluz, popped up Sept. 28, the day the agreement was announced. Since then, hundreds of users have posted support of the park remaining public.

Kendall Pelling, of nonprofit East Liberty Development Inc., says the sale of the park is contrary to the vision of the East Liberty community plan, which was created in 1999 to provide a framework for revitalization for the neighborhood. He also says it goes against the intention of the agreement between Penn Plaza residents, the Gumbergs and the city.

“The sale of that park is not necessary to protect the residents or advance affordable housing,” says Pelling.

Kluz — who is an ELDI board member but says she is speaking out as a resident — says that community engagement should be the first process when conveying public land to private entities. 

Kevin Acklin, the mayor’s chief of staff and head architect of the agreement, says there is still a rigorous public process to come, including votes from city council and the URA board. Because of this, the city still has leverage on the future of the park, according to Acklin.

“We may retain a part of the park, or we may convey that we would want the Gumbergs to build a new park,” says Acklin.

On Oct. 2, Acklin met with community leaders to discuss the future of the park. According to Kluz, who attended the sit-down with Acklin and the Gumbergs’ lawyer Jonathan Kamin, the details of the developer’s plan for the park is still up in the air. But the owners envision something like an open-space retail center with public access, similar to Market Square, surrounded by bottom-floor retail and upper-story residential units.

“They want to develop the park to be something fancy, and we believe it should be something for the whole public,” says Pelling.

Kluz points out that the agreement has other language that concerns her, where “everything is contingent on everything else.”

One of these contingencies revolves around the future Mellon Orchard development, planned housing two blocks away from Penn Plaza. According to the agreement, the site will now include a minimum of 20 percent affordable units. 

Additionally, the west side of the Penn Plaza development could also include a percentage of affordable units, but only if the Gumbergs are awarded the Mellon Orchard site within one year, according to the agreement.

Acklin argues that this contingency is a win for the city. He says the Gumbergs would have to include an average of 20 percent affordable housing overall for Mellon and the west side of the future Penn Plaza development, if they were awarded the site. And if the Gumbergs don’t get the site, a portion of Penn Plaza still has to include affordable housing at levels set by the city’s affordable-housing task force.

“That condition does not bind the URA, it binds Gumberg,” Acklin says.

But Kluz questions the Gumbergs’ ability to create and run affordable housing well, considering that the vast majority of their properties are retail and office spaces. 

“I think affordable housing is a hard thing to get your hands around,” she says, “so it should be someone with some experience in how to manage it.”