History mourned in East Liberty project plans
Plans for an 89-unit apartment building in the heart of East Liberty are moving forward despite concerns from some historical preservationists and Mayor Bill Peduto.
“So much of East Liberty's historical commercial core has been lost, and it would be disrespectful to lose more of it in the name of development,” said Ellen Kitzerow, chairman of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh.
In a letter to the city's Planning Commission, Peduto added: “The proposed plan does not adequately respect the historical nature of the Penn Avenue business corridor,” part of a commercial district that is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Walnut Capital Partners received conditional approval Tuesday from the commission to tear down four buildings near the corner of Penn and Highland avenues to make way for a six-story building with street-level retail space and apartments on the upper floors. The project is expected to cost $10.5 million. The state's historic commission previously approved the proposed demolition.
Some attending the commission meeting voiced concerns about the proposed demolitions, citing the neighborhood's history. Local leaders razed many East Liberty buildings in the 1960s in a failed attempt at urban renewal. After decades of decline, recent redevelopment has brought with it many new commercial and residential buildings, breathing new life into surrounding areas such as Larimer.
Shadyside's Walnut Capital restored the nearby Highland and Wallace buildings, establishing the 117-unit Walnut on Highland apartment buildings, which are fully leased with a waiting list.
“We wish every building could be preserved, but sometimes that can't be done. You have to take a reasoned approach,” said Walnut Capital President Todd Reidbord.
East Liberty Development Inc. owns the buildings targeted for demolition, including the former home of Bolan's Candies. Ironically, the agency bought them in 2006 to save them from being razed for a parking lot.
“I think after eight years of struggling with them, it's time to move forward,” said ELDI investment officer Skip Schwab, noting the group spends about $9,000 a month to hold onto the buildings. Two previous attempts to redevelop them failed.
The planning commission approved Walnut Capital's demolition and construction plans with caveats. Conditions include requiring the developer to catalogue and preserve the old buildings' facades and to come up with a plan to use more elements of the facades in the new construction.
Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.