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Progress on Route 51 slow but seen

| Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011

Greg Michalski sat at his regular watering hole Monday afternoon on Route 51 in Brentwood, chatting with the bartender.

Michalski, 56, of Brentwood, said he pays close attention to the comings and goings of businesses on 51, a corridor that stretches across seven municipalities, including Whitehall, Baldwin Borough and Pleasant Hills.

"I'd say it's stagnant. You get a few things," he said from Gorman's Pub.

Although newcomers are setting up shop on Route 51, there are still a host of for-sale or for-lease signs in windows and parking lots of old, vacant buildings, many of which are described by residents and town officials as eyesores.

Traveled by 41,000 vehicles each day, Route 51 has the potential to bounce back from the blight that has plagued it for years, people in economic development, government and real estate said.

"And a lot of people live on both sides of 51, in and around 51, so the area can certainly support filling the vacancies," said David Glickman, vice president in the Downtown office of Grubb & Ellis Retail Group, a division of Santa Ana, Calif.-based commercial real estate firm Grubb & Ellis Co. The firm has sold property on the road.

The vacancies didn't happen overnight, so redevelopment is going to take some time, he said.

A slew of vacant and occupied properties has been owned by the Levitske family since the 1950s. Andrew Levitske of Whitehall owned 30 lots from the Pittsburgh border to Whitehall. For years, municipal officials blamed blight on those properties. After Levitske's death, his children, Linda Dunlap and Drew Levitske, took over the company, Levitske Bros., in 2006, saying they planned to redevelop, sell or lease all the property along Route 51.

According to the Allegheny County Assessor's Office, Levitske Bros.' Brentwood property includes six buildings on Saw Mill Road, part of Route 51. Other properties are under the name of Andrew Levitske.

The company did not return calls for comment, but municipal officials, residents and business owners say they can see some of the fruits of their labor as new businesses take shape along the corridor. They include an Auto Zone and Erb Physical Therapy.

Another could be Kitchen Cabinet Factory Outlet. Art Campisano, who has been operating the store in Murrysville since 1975, plans to open another at 2735 Route 51 in Whitehall once he gets the borough's approval. The store would occupy a building that has been vacant for 25 years. Campisano is buying the property from Levitske.

"We wanted to be part of the solution, not part of the problem," said Artilio Campisano Jr., Art Campisano's son and manager of the Murrysville store.

"You have to start somewhere," he said, citing as an example Home Depot, Target and other retailers that are helping to revitalize the East Liberty neighborhood in Pittsburgh.

John O'Neill opened his store, Furniture Co., in December in a Levitske building he leases on Saw Mill Road in Brentwood.

"They had the only building big enough, and it's affordable," he said.

He said business has been going well, but it would be better if traffic was slowed down on Route 51.

Plans in the works

Economic Development South, a nonprofit set up by Pleasant Hills, Whitehall and Brentwood, is working on creating an overlay zoning district for Whitehall and Brentwood, and possibly Baldwin and Pleasant Hills, that would create one set of zoning rules for companies to redevelop properties, said Greg Jones, executive director.

The group has applied for a $37,500 county grant, and proposed that the boroughs contribute $12,500, to study and create the ordinance, he said.

Economic Development South is working on a branding campaign with signage, marketing and a website that promotes the corridor, he said.

A 2010 report commissioned identifies Route 51's assets as inexpensive living costs, relatively easy access to Pittsburgh and strong communities along its length.

But the report from the AIA Center for Communities by Design, an architects' group, identifies challenges, such as "disinvestment along parts of the corridor, traffic congestion, a transit system that is currently not serving its full potential, a road unfriendly to pedestrians and bicyclists, flooding, and combined sanitary/storm sewer overflows."

Some sites are oddly configured, said Whitehall Manager James Leventry, and the intersection of Routes 88 and 51, which is being redone by PennDOT, is "the worst intersection in Allegheny County."

Furthermore, the area is not seen as a shopping destination such as The Waterfront retail center in Homestead or South Hills Village mall in Bethel Park, Jones said.

His group and municipalities are working to market positive aspects of Route 51's communities, such as the high-quality parks and school districts. They hope that will lead to more commerce.

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