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Peduto pushes for affordable housing in East Liberty redevelopment

Bob Bauder
| Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015, 12:01 a.m.
Coalition of Organized Residents president Alethea Sims, 59, of East Liberty shows the difference between Penn Plaza (left) and newly developed East Liberty Place South (right).
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Coalition of Organized Residents president Alethea Sims, 59, of East Liberty shows the difference between Penn Plaza (left) and newly developed East Liberty Place South (right).
With apartment buildings surrounding the Enright Parklet in East Liberty on Friday, July 31, 2015, Dorian Bluszcz, 12, and his brother Nikodem, 3, play in a fountain as their mother, Daria, watches. The family from Warsaw is in the area visiting relatives. 'I'm surprised they're the only children having fun outside in the park. In Warsaw, a park like this would be filled with children playing,' Blusczc said.
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
With apartment buildings surrounding the Enright Parklet in East Liberty on Friday, July 31, 2015, Dorian Bluszcz, 12, and his brother Nikodem, 3, play in a fountain as their mother, Daria, watches. The family from Warsaw is in the area visiting relatives. 'I'm surprised they're the only children having fun outside in the park. In Warsaw, a park like this would be filled with children playing,' Blusczc said.

Pittsburgh will use a small city park and a zoning-variance request as leverage to get a developer to include affordable housing in a proposed redevelopment of an East Liberty apartment complex, Mayor Bill Peduto and his chief of staff said.

Pennley Park South Inc., a subsidiary of Downtown-based LG Realty Advisors Inc., is planning to redevelop Penn Plaza Apartments — a 312-unit complex on Penn Avenue that opened in 1968 to house low-income residents. The company sent notices in early July to about 250 residents, telling them their leases would not be renewed and they would have to move within 90 days. It rescinded the notices on July 20 at Peduto's request.

Peduto said this week that his office is negotiating with the company to delay evictions until the city can find new housing for the residents. He wants the company to include affordable housing in the project.

He's using as bargaining chips the developer's request for a zoning variance and to acquire the roughly 8-acre public park space, known as Enright Parklet, at Penn Plaza.

“From our perspective, we're unwilling to move forward on that unless we come to a conclusion — first, on what commitment to affordable housing that they and other developers will be having ... (and) second, to make sure that project is phased in a manner that allows for this to happen so people aren't just kicked out of their homes on 90 days' notice,” said Peduto's Chief of Staff Kevin Acklin.

Lawrence Gumberg, founder and president of LG Realty, referred questions to Downtown attorney Jonathan Kamin, who said the company can move ahead without a variance on the city property.

“One way or another, that property is going to get redeveloped,” Kamin said. “It's a question of what type of project are we going to do? We could develop it without the public land. We can do a residential project there and not need any zoning relief.

“We recognize that affordable housing is a citywide problem,” he continued. “We understand the city's priorities, and we're going to do our best to meet those priorities.”

LG Realty Advisors has requested no public assistance beyond obtaining the park land.

The company, according to the mayor's office and Kamin, is considering a development that would include demolition of existing buildings and new market-rate apartments with space for retail establishments.

“At this point, I don't know that we've arrived at any decision other than the property needs extensive rehabilitation and work,” Kamin said.

Acklin acknowledged the site is on private property but said: “The social impact of their decisions, really, we would be left to clean up.”

From 1960-70, the city demolished 2 million square feet of buildings and houses in the heart of East Liberty in an urban-renewal project that displaced 28 percent of its population, according to East Liberty Development Inc. Penn Plaza and four other high-rises were built to replace lost housing.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority was the developer of Penn Plaza — the last visage of that era — and built it with some federal subsidies, according to city Planning Department records and Kamin.

Readily available records don't contain many details.

Covenants, however, stipulated the Penn Plaza buildings could not be redeveloped for 40 years; they expired in 2004, Kamin said. The other buildings were razed in 2005 and 2009.

“Quite a few of us moved over to Penn Plaza,” said Alethea Sims, who has since moved to a building near Penn Plaza. “Every time you move, you lose something. You lose not only possessions, but it's disquieting. You lose your routine.”

Peduto said Penn Plaza underscores Pittsburgh's need for at least 7,000 affordable housing units.

The mayor established a 24-member task force that met for the first time on Thursday to assess the situation and recommend ways for improvement.

He also pitched an idea to President Obama, who was in Pittsburgh last week, that would rely on community groups, faith-based organizations and nonprofits to transform blighted properties into affordable housing with labor provided by residents of poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

The president was impressed, Peduto said.

“We want a pilot program to be able to take blight and create opportunity,” Peduto said. “I think that we might be able to have a very proactive affordable housing program in the city by next year.”

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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