Beechview store loss a sign of times

| Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The closing of the Foodland on Broadway Avenue over the weekend is the latest blow to Pittsburgh's Beechview neighborhood, which lost several other businesses in recent years under a failed redevelopment effort.

The grocery store that shut Saturday was a Foodland for most of its 52-year history, owner Jack Aloisio said. It was an anchor in a small commercial district that has been in decline for more than a decade.

"We were operating a full-service supermarket, and it was no longer profitable," Aloisio said Tuesday of the store he ran for 10 years. Beechview has deteriorated rapidly, he said, since developer Bernardo Katz left the country in late 2007 after defaulting on mortgages for four Beechview buildings that he bought with financing from the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Aloisio said he asked the authority at one point to help him refinance the building and upgrade the store, but nothing came through.

Some political officials brought discount chain Save-A-Lot in early this year to consider taking over the location, but the St. Louis-based company saw problems, Aloisio and store manager Jim Klingensmith said. Namely, only one of the Foodland's freezer cases can take foods brought in by the pallet, and all stock has to be brought in via a ramp on the side of the building.

Save-A-Lot representatives contacted yesterday said they had no immediate information about the store. A URA representative couldn't be reached for comment.

The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation studied buildings in the Broadway Avenue district with the intent of spurring activity along the Port Authority T line.

"We would like to see a full, transit-oriented development that would include a grocery store," foundation President Arthur P. Ziegler Jr. said.

State Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, said he's continuing to talk to grocers about the prospect of moving into Beechview. "Studies have shown a grocery store can work there," said Fontana, who grew up in the neighborhood.

Klingensmith said store sales started falling off about two years ago, after rising gasoline prices made items more costly and neighborhood families began to buy less and to do more of their shopping at larger supermarkets or warehouse clubs.

For many, the store took on the role of a convenience store -- a place to stop for a gallon of milk or a last-minute dinner ingredient. In the end, "We were still getting 400 to 500 customers a day, but 50 to 100 of them were kids buying a bag of chips," he said. There were 25 employees when the store closed.

Much of Beechview's business district remains vacant.

Federal prosecutors are looking for Katz, charged along with two co-defendants a year ago with trying to sell properties for more than they were worth from 2005 to 2007, and lying about their values and the rent they generated. Banks foreclosed on several properties he owned.

Aloisio also operated a Foodland on McNeilly Road at Sussex Avenue in Baldwin Township, until he lost his lease and was forced to close the store in 2008. That building has been razed, and an Aldi discount grocery store is to open there in November.

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