The Business and Investment Guide to East Liberty
Ten years ago, a typical landlord would’ve tried to say his East Liberty properties were in Shadyside. But now, the boom is on -- like prodigal children, everybody claims the East Liberty name.
“I think East Liberty is the place to be,” says Art Schwotzer, a Butler-based developer. His company, Crossgates, is building 30 luxury condo units at Baum and Penn Circle West. “Just take a look and see what’s going on. Walgreens, Starbucks -- when Starbucks moves into an area, that tells you something,” he says. “They really do their homework, those guys.”
Crossgates already owns the similar Madison condos in North Oakland, but the Lofts on Baum will be the company’s first big investment in East Liberty. Schwotzer’s upbeat remarks summarize the new conventional wisdom on East Liberty: That of a neighborhood that’s worked hard to revive, now suddenly “endorsed” by key national chains. “With all they’re doing over there with Whole Foods, the Hillman Cancer Center and what’s going on on Baum and Centre, we just thought this was a market that deserved a building like this,” Schwotzer adds.
The national chains’ arrival has been dramatic. Besides those mentioned by Schwotzer, there’s also Home Depot, with Borders, Staples and now Trader Joe’s. And yet, there’s more to East Liberty’s business story. Before the chains there were the scrappy and creative entrepreneurs, as well as major public works, like restoring historic street patterns and public-private partnerships to remake low-income housing towers into mixed-income developments.
Last but not least, independent bar and restaurant proprietors have set up shop at the Highland and Centre intersection, aiming with fresh menus, renovations and music to serve not only East Liberty but the whole city. With their new popularity, these casual-yet-classy nightspots are connecting East Liberty to the rest of the city, one dinner at a time.
Money. It's a gas.
Attracting national capital to East Liberty was an accomplishment several years in the making for the East Liberty Development Initiative, a nonprofit community-development corporation. Much of the current boom was actually charted in a 1999 comprehensive plan. The plan was followed by marketing efforts and many cases of “gap financing,” in which public or semi-public funds make up the difference between a project’s costs and what a private will loan.
All along, East Liberty held promise – and pent-up demand. East Liberty has “the most valuable trade area in the region,” notes Tom Link, manager of business development for the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority. “It’s in the center of wealthy areas. That’s what made it such a successful commercial region in its heyday. It had the most buying power in the region, maybe in the whole U.S. at the time.”
Even when East Liberty became run down in the 1980s and ’90s, it never died. And meanwhile, the surrounding neighborhoods remained affluent. The power of East Liberty’s central crossroads is a geographic fact that hasn’t changed since Thomas Mellon first sold plots in the 1800s, launching East Liberty as the “second downtown” that the East End through the 1950s.
The worst threat to this bustling, urban neighborhood was the “call of the mall.” Trying to match suburban competition in the 1960s, the neighborhood underwent a massive urban-renewal plan, including vast demolition and “modern” rebuilding. The plan also created Penn Circle -- a beltway-type loop around the neighborhood –which backfired spectacularly, stifling the commerce it was intended to attract.
With this traumatic history, it’s no surprise that East Liberty would seek revival in neo-traditional urbanism, undoing the radical “renewal” that disrupted it decades ago. This spring, for instance, an $800,000 state- and city-funded streetscape improvement was announced for the formerly seedy Broad Street. Still, the highest priority has been reclaiming street grid from Penn Circle and opening it to two-way traffic.
“Two-way traffic on Penn Circle South was a critical part,” agrees Steve Mosites, the developer of the Eastside stores on the newly re-christened Centre Avenue, which includes Walgreens, Starbucks and Borders. Mosites and architect Chris Minnerly took advantage of the unusual, sloping site to make a two-level, compact development that would have “front doors” on both stories. Plans are also underway to build a pedestrian bridge across the valley to neighboring Shadyside.
Following on the heels of Eastside, other new retail developments are opening. Just opened in the old Wheeler Paint Building is a Trader Joe’s grocery, developed by Lori Moran and Ballymoney & Company, Inc. Meanwhile, Walnut Capital has its “Bakery Square” on the drawing board, which would convert the closed Nabisco factory into 380,000 square feet of office and retail space, 38 residential units, 120 hotel rooms and an 800-space parking garage.
The commercial boom has supported residential projects, like Schwotzer’s Crossgates and the long-awaited renovation of the landmark Highland Building, a 13-story former office building on Highland Avenue. The Highland will become condos (starting at $135,000), while the adjoining property will become a Holiday Inn with an attached parking garage.
Although some of the new projects have been undertaken with wholly private money, many others have benefited from public loans, many of which came from state government as well as revolving loan funds administered by the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, says the agency’s Tom Link. The URA also assembles parcels for redevelopment – it’s held the Highland Building, for instance. “We’ve been intimately involved with East Liberty,” Link says, lending assistance and services to Home Depot, Whole Foods, Eastside, the Werner Building--where CMU spin-off Deep Local just set up shop along with the Pittsburgh office of the New York firm, eeBoo--and the Liberty Bank Building -- where noted local architect Andrew Moss just launched his own firm, mossArchitects.
Not just big business is eligible, Link emphasizes, noting that 80 to 90 percent of the URA’s loans go to small businesses.
A national model?
The dramatic success of recent East Liberty investments has been striking, Link adds. “Growing up in [neighboring] Highland Park, I’m very familiar with the East End and East Liberty. Even five or six years ago, it seemed beyond the realm of possibility. I think that what’s happening can serve as a national example.”
Although Sneaker Villa’s shoes and clothes are up-to-the-second trendy, the atmosphere in the East Liberty store is pleasantly old-fashioned, with high ceilings and huge windows opening up to the Penn-Highland corner.
“I think it’s a beautiful thing,” says manager Eugene Tyler of East Liberty’s recent business boom. “It’s gonna help the community. It opens up job opportunities. I’d like to see a lot of the businesses coming in give East Liberty people a chance. Let them redevelop with you.”
Tyler hopes that the new chains on Centre will boost business throughout the neighborhood. With Sneaker Villa’s exclusive brands and promotions – DJs on Saturdays and discounts for church families on Sundays – Tyler believes the store offers a mix unique enough to compete against the mass merchants.
The small businesses aren’t as well capitalized as Walgreens, but their sweat equity is enormous – literally so, in the case of Naka Fitness, owned and operated by Jim “the Big Weave” Weaver. A former dancer, Weaver renovated his Highland Avenue studio three years ago. Weaver specializes in a number of moves and programs that he created himself in his “boot camp”: hip hop aerobics, gospel aerobics and youth dance classes, along with familiar offerings like low-impact and senior aerobics. “We target our youth,” he continues. “Come in here, get a workout, give them a reason to get off the streets” -- and with classes just $5 per session, it’s cheaper than a movie.
Between the new chains on Centre and the old shops on Penn sits a new crop of locally owned restaurants and bars, along with a few shops, like the Abyssinia African gift shop. These easygoing-but-classy places might be able to bridge what many long-time residents see as “New Shadyside” – the chains and the big spenders lured by Whole Foods -- and the existing, mostly African American neighborhood.
Among the new places, Shadow Lounge was first, founded in 2001 by the then-21-year-old Justin Strong. At that time, Strong recalls, there was a lot of talk around town about retaining young people, but as a bona fide young person, he was unimpressed with ideas like tearing down historic buildings to make way for a Hard Rock Café. Instead, Shadow Lounge would be a place where real-live young people could see other young people on stage, in bands, as DJs and MCs, and – of course – dancing (but without the cheesy antifreeze-colored cocktails).
Strong started the lounge by maxing out two credit cards. While this particular “capitalization” strategy got the lounge open, it hasn’t made it easy for him to get a regular bank loan – a beachhead of normalcy he’d still like to achieve. Still, the Lounge was so popular that his own customers have raised the money for expansions and for a state liquor license. One new partner is a waitress, a regular who appreciated a comfortable place to relax after her shift.
Since 2001, more eats and drinks have opened in the storefronts clustered around the Highland and Centre intersection, including the retro-classy Kelly’s Bar and Grill, Abay Ethiopian Cuisine, the bistro Red Room Café, and the new eatery, Royal Caribbean. Abyssinia moved in next to Kelly’s, and the Global Food Market – a pan-ethnic spice shop and grocery -- moved from an overlooked alley space to the storefront next to Abay.
Having arrived a before the new places, Strong was able to see first-hand how perceptions have changed. Early on, he recalls, people would call for directions, “and when I said ‘East Liberty,’ people would hang up the phone. It’s not like the [high-crime] 90s never happened, but we did a lot to break that [reputation] down. We kinda police the block,” he continues, by being active late at night.
Now, the planned Highland Building condos and Holiday Inn will further up the ante. “More residential will bring more customers,” Strong says. Just in time, Strong has just opened the Shadow Lounge’s sister club, Ava, in an adjoining storefront directly across from the future hotel and garnered a late-night food license. “We’ll position ourselves to take our part of the new market,” he says.
“East Liberty’ll become a destination like the South Side or the South Side Works. Now, you’re coming just for Shadow Lounge, or Red Room, or Kelly’s. Soon, you’ll come to East Liberty: ‘Let’s go over to East Liberty,’ then pick a place to eat, have a drink somewhere.
“East Liberty can have a little bit of everything, can be talked about like [Washington, D.C.’s] Adams Morgan. You can break down a lot of stereotypes if people are next to each other, bumping elbows. We can be the place, in the new parking garage, with a Jaguar next to an Escort.”
For more information on East Liberty visit the PopCity:
- Moving Guide
- Visiting Guide
Directions to East Liberty
From the North:
Take I-279 South and merge onto I-579 South via Exit 8A toward Veterans Bridge. Take the 7th Ave/6th Ave exit and take the ramp toward Mellon Arena. Turn left onto Bigelow Blvd and then stay straight to go onto N Craig St/PA-380. Turn left onto Baum Blvd/PA-380/Baum Blvd Bridge and continue to follow Baum Blvd/PA-380. Arrive in East Liberty.
From the East:
Take I-376 W/US-22 W toward Pittsburgh. Merge onto PA-8 via Exit 8B toward Wilkinsburg. Stay straight to go onto Penn Ave/PA-380 and arrive in East Liberty.
From the South:
Take W Liberty Ave/US-19 Truck North and continue to follow W Liberty Ave. Turn slight right onto Liberty Tunnels - Liberty Tunnels becomes Liberty Bridge. Stay straight to go onto Crosstown Blvd and take the Bigelow Blvd/PA-380 exit. Merge onto PA-380. Turn left onto Baum Blvd/PA-380/Baum Blvd Bridge and continue to follow Baum Blvd/PA-380. Arrive in East Liberty.
From the West:
Take I-279 N/US-22 E/US-30 E toward Pittsburgh. Merge onto I-376 E/US-22 E/US-30 E via Exit 6A toward Monroeville. Take the Forbes Ave ext, Exit 2A, toward Oakland and stay straight to go onto Forbes Ave. Turn Left onto S Bellefield Ave and turn right onto Centre Ave. Centre Ave becomes Penn Cir S/PA-380. Arrive in East Liberty.
Mellon Street houses (ELDI)
Lofts on Baum (Crossgates)
Walgreens at Eastside
Eugene Tyler of Sneaker Villa
Justin Strong of Shadow Lounge + Ava
All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene
except Lofts on Baum courtesy of Crossgates, Inc.