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Anchor stores sought for East Liberty's Penn Circle

| Friday, Oct. 3, 2008, 12:00 p.m.

A number of development projects have popped up around Penn Circle in East Liberty, but few have ventured inside.

Three years after the demolition of public housing high-rises on Penn Avenue signaled a step toward long-awaited development in East Liberty's business district, significant changes haven't taken place. Many storefronts remain empty.

"We recognize if you come on Penn Avenue that you'll see some facades that are in bad need of being restored," said Paul Brecht, executive director of the East Liberty Chamber of Commerce. "There's no sense in (improving) it until you know what kind of businesses are going to be going in there."

Community development groups are confident that projects outside the circle such as the Home Depot that opened in 1999 will encourage development within.

The goal is to attract anchor stores on both sides of the Penn Circle, which would draw shoppers, said Ernie Hogan, deputy director of East Liberty Development Inc. That would provide a customer base for prospective small businesses, he said.

"So people come to the district and then they have a tendency to stay and have lunch, then they might (visit other stores), because they realize (they're) here," he said. "By creating that market flux and draw, we expand the community in a more advantageous way that benefits everybody."

Existing business owners have mixed emotions about what they call Shadyside-esque development making its way to the central business district.

Vince Arabia, 52, of Lower Burrell, owner of Sam's Bostonian shoe store on Penn Avenue, is afraid such development would destroy the atmosphere small businesses provide.

But he does see the benefit of larger retailers.

Business suffered slightly when a PNC bank across the street from his store moved to the Eastside complex on Centre Avenue. That complex houses Whole Foods, Starbucks and Borders, among others.

"The people who go to the stores over there don't even park over here," he said. "They're afraid," because of how it looks.

Neighborhood leaders hope two projects change that.

One, dubbed the East Side Five, is on Broad Street between Sheridan Avenue and North Beatty Street, Brecht said. Developers such as Edward Lesoon of the East Liberty-based Wedgwood Group would like to lure retail stores and restaurants to the complex. Target, for one, has shown interest.

The other involves East Liberty Development, which last year bought four buildings on Penn Avenue near North Highland Avenue, Hogan said. The nonprofit received bids from companies interested in leasing space and is optimistic renovations could begin next year, he said.

Hogan reassured existing businesses that they would be considered in the shopping district's redevelopment. His organization is working to educate owners about competing in the changing market, he said.

Rafia Brookings, 22, of Highland Park, manager of Jamil's Global Village on Penn Avenue, called the development "excellent and wonderful."

"Could it push the small, African-American, mom-and-pop types out of here• I don't see why it would," he said. "It would take the people who own the places to close them."

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