Planning Commission votes for continuance on controversial East Liberty development | Infrastructure | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Planning Commission votes for continuance on controversial East Liberty development

click to enlarge Planning Commission votes for continuance on controversial East Liberty development
Artist's rendering of the proposed six-story, mixed use building in East Liberty from McKnight Realty Partner's application
At a Jan. 25 meeting, the city of Pittsburgh's City Planning Commission has voted for a continuance on McKnight Realty Partners’ application to build a six-story, mixed-use building with two retail units and 38 residential units on the 5900 block of Penn Avenue in East Liberty. A continuance is not an approval or rejection, but a commitment to revisit the application after an unspecified amount of time.

McKnight’s proposal has generated a lot of public opposition. Advocates say the firm failed to solicit and respond to community feedback. McKnight denied that their community engagement around this proposal was in any way inadequate.

“I feel very strongly about the need to have you come back and work together with the community,” Commissioner Lashawn Burton-Faulk said, as she called for a continuation to allow for more and better communication between stakeholders.

McKnight purchased the block of properties in late 2020 for $8.3 million. The block includes four separate structures, including the Kelly Strayhorn Theater and the four-story Penn Highland Building, which once housed a May Stern store. McKnight plans to leave KST and the Penn Highland building untouched and construct their building in the parcel’s southwestern quadrant.

Izzy Rudolph, President of Development and Acquisitions for McKnight Realty Partners, spoke at the meeting of a desire to preserve these historic structures for the next generation and said McKnight met with “numerous community groups,” which he named as Village Collaborative of East Liberty, the parcel’s current retail tenants, and East Liberty Development, Inc.

After the applicants presented their proposal, the commission heard from almost 30 members of the public who overwhelmingly spoke against McKnight’s plan. Most focused on the Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s value as a community asset and their concerns that, although McKnight says they are committed to having, in the words of project architect Ryan Indovina, “zero impact” on the theater’s operations, the development may have unintended negative consequences for KST.

Several community members challenged the claim that Village Collaborative and ELDI are legitimate community representatives. Eric Vanistendael, former ELDI employee, said that while he holds no ill will towards the people of ELDI, “community groups [like ELDI] … do not represent the communities that they work in.” Vanistendael said ELDI actually represents certain power structures and fashionable ideas about urban development.

"Both [ELDI and Village Collaborative] are self-appointed and don't represent the community," said longtime Pittsburgh resident Mel Packer.

KST staff and board members criticized McKnight’s communication with their organization throughout the process, calling it “misleading” and “inconsistent.” Caitlin Green, chair of the KST Board of Directors, also mentioned concerns about McKnight’s “lack of guarantees about operational impacts” on the theater and voiced her frustration that McKnight failed to reach out to KST after they sent McKnight a letter explaining their concerns.

Other speakers criticized a history of inequitable top-down development in East Liberty, a tradition they say McKnight’s plan upholds. “We’re still standing in the shadow of the destruction of the Penn Plaza apartments,” said Adrian Jones, who urged the commission to consider the negative impacts of redlining, urban renewal, and gentrification in East Liberty. He said that too often in East Liberty’s history, profit concerns have trumped the needs of the neighborhood's Black and Brown residents.

“East Liberty has been devastated by the erasure and the displacement of the people who actually made the community so attractive and so beautiful that you wanted to come here and develop it,” added Bekezela Mguni, a local artist and activist who is one of the founders of New Voices for Reproductive Justice.

"There are so few spaces in East Liberty that remain for Black people," said La'Tasha Mayes of New Voices for Reproductive Justice, who just announced her candidacy to fill Mayor Ed Gainey's former state House seat in District 24, which includes East Liberty.

One local politician who has given his approval for the project is city councilor Ricky Burgess, who represents the city district and whose June 2021 letter of support was included in McKnight Realty Partner's application. "I support this project and believe it will positively impact the East Liberty community, adding new neighbors to the area while keeping the Kelly Strayhorn and the historic May Stern Building intact," he wrote in 2021.

“It doesn't seem to be about balconies, it seems to be more about participation and presence, and I think that's something that's within reach of this project,” said Commissioner Christine Mondor at the close of the meeting.