The Moving Guide to East Liberty
As spectators sweltered and speakers took the podium on Mellon Street, you could say things were looking up. At least, everyone on Mellon Street was looking up.
In the sky above them, they spied neither bird nor plane nor even rain. Instead, their eyes were drawn to a huge board-and-plywood box dangling from a crane like a Christmas ornament. Slowly, the box – a component of one of the four modular houses underway on Mellon – swiveled foot-by-foot to the side and came to rest on an already complete first floor. These four modulars – which, when complete, will look like traditional two-story houses -- will follow more construction on Mellon, including four rehabbed Victorians and a block of new rowhouses. These are just a few of the properties in East Liberty’s private and nonprofit building boom.
“Go through, tell us what you think,” East Liberty Development Inc. Director Maelene Myers told the crowd, dismissing them to their house tours. “Then get back to us.”
Lately, it's seemed that all of East Liberty is a building site, with a startling amount of residential, commercial and institutional construction underway, with the expectation of adding 50-75 residential units per year for the next five years. And not all of the good places to live are new: Many old houses, from modest to grand, are cheap fixer-uppers or are reasonably priced for move-in condition. Also, its many rentals – both in East Liberty and neighboring Highland Park -- attract both families and students, in older houses and stately prewar apartment buildings, such as the newly rehabbed Sutherland Building.
Centrally located and abundant in a variety of new and historic housing types, East Liberty is among the few city neighborhoods that could offer a convenient and comfortable place to live for renters and homeowners, old and young, black and white, rich and poor.
Originally named for the common grazing lands (“liberties”) east of Pittsburgh’s downtown, East Liberty’s broad central plateau soon became the place where Pittsburgh’s elite escaped from the smoke and noise of their own factories. With the early trolley lines, the neighborhood boomed with settlement. By the early Twentieth Century, East Liberty had a reputation as the city’s second downtown, with department stores, movie theatres, restaurants and more.
However, in the 1950s and ’60s, the country’s lawns-and-malls infatuation began to suggest that East Liberty might not maintain its prominence in the auto age, and the neighborhood underwent an ambitious urban-renewal plan. Unfortunately, the plan’s massive demolition, displacement and road construction didn’t update the “second downtown” so much as undermine it, leading to neglect and even abandonment at the neighborhood’s heart.
But East Liberty remained at the center of the city’s most affluent quadrant, the East End; in fact, one study conducted for ELDI found that the area within a mile’s radius of East Liberty contained the highest concentration of income in the metro area. In East Liberty, major thoroughfares converge, including Baum Boulevard, Center Avenue, Penn Avenue, Highland Avenue, Negley Avenue and Washington Boulevard. The old streetcar routes are still the city’s busiest bus lines, and East Liberty is served by two stops on the East End’s rapid-transit link, the East Busway.
The crossroads couldn’t be ignored for long. At last, East Liberty is being appreciated as a city – not suburban – neighborhood, with new bars, restaurants and stores. Though many Pittsburgh neighborhoods are seeing evidence of a back-to-the-city trend, East Liberty’s sudden boom is the most dramatic.
East Liberty’s landmark architecture is providing both backdrop and incentive. The massive East Liberty Presbyterian Church has always been a fixture of the community, while the recent renovation of the ornate Kelly-Strayhorn theater has been a beacon of hope on Penn Avenue.
Following this lead is a renovation of the 13-story Highland Building – originally built by coal baron Henry Clay Frick – into 86 relatively moderately priced (about $170,000) condos, which will adjoin a new Holiday Inn and parking garage. Also in the heart of East Liberty, the former YMCA building will also become condos. Nearby, a former auto showroom has become the Spinning Plate, three stories of income-qualified artists’ lofts at the corner of Baum and Friendship avenues. Across from the Spinning Plate, more condos – this time, of the wholly unsubsidized, luxury variety – are being built by Crossgates Development.
Going for opposite ends of the market, these three buildings’ developers all recognized East Liberty’s appeal. The Spinning Plate came first, in 1998, and was followed by announcements about the Highland Building and the Lofts on Baum last year. Art Schwotzer, Crossgates’ chairman, notes that his company has had success with a similar condo building, the Madison, in North Oakland. “People are looking for a lifestyle different from large homes,” he says. “People who are downsizing, two bedrooms for them is fine, or [for] a young professional, ‘a space where I can do my thing.’” The Lofts on Baum will start at $189,000, going up to $399,000.
“East Liberty is the place to be, take a look and see what’s going on,” Schwotzer continues. “Walgreens, Starbucks … when Starbucks moves into an area, that tells you something! And Borders. They really do their homework. And when they can back up your homework, it’s nice.”
Adds Leigh Burch III, developer of the Highland Building, “We think there’s a real shortage of multi-family housing for ownership.” In addition to the usual condo-buying suspects of retirees and young professionals, Burch hopes that East Liberty’s convenience to Oakland could induce students (or their parents) to invest in a condo instead of paying rent.
The neighborhood is also getting a number of small in-fill new houses, including homes on Mellon Street and Negley and Stanton avenues, most of which are being sold through East Liberty Development, Inc.
600 new units
Another huge construction thrust is the replacement of several 1960s low-income housing towers with mixed-income rowhouses and small apartment buildings, another effort that’s led by East Liberty Development and the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority. The Liberty Place redevelopment, at Broad and Collins streets is being undertaken by McCormack Baron Salazar, a well-known national for-profit firm specializing in mixed-income developments. The firm previously completed the widely praised Crawford Square and Bedford Dwellings redevelopments in the Hill District. Another recognized company, the nonprofit Boston-based Community Builders, Inc., is completing construction on the Penn Manor section of the rehabilitations, on Penn Avenue at St. Clair Street. Between the two companies, over 600 new units are recently completed or underway.
Central to this reconstruction is relocating former high-rise tenants within the neighborhood; they’ll have first choice among the new rental units. Alethea Sims is one of the residents involved in the transition, which is fitting, as she and her mother were among the first tenants in the now-demolished East Mall building. Sims is 50 now, and was a mere 27 then. She and the Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty have helped guide the new buildings’ development.
“I’m glad to see the residents are getting their voices heard,” she says. “It’s a common misconception that people in low-income housing are transient, they don’t have roots.” Sims clicks off a list of her friends, long-term residents like herself. “In any neighborhood, there’s good and bad. The bad were weeded out, and the good, it was like family. There was a real sense of community despite income levels and other barriers.”
When the new buildings go up in the vicinity of her old apartment, “I’d like to go back to the East Mall site. That was my home for 20 years.” The East Mall site will be home to the new Liberty Park development, which will be a mix of subsidized rentals and market-rate. Liberty Park will also replace the streets that were torn up in the 1960s to make the empty, grassy pod on which the tower stood. Says Ernie Hogan, residential development director for ELDI, “People wanted a real address, ‘I live on Collins Street,’ not, ‘in that project.’”
In keeping with this spirit, ELDI is also working with S&A Homes on the Negley Neighbors development project, a 49-unit, scattered-site rental housing effort, which revive East Liberty’s neglected nooks and crannies.
Besides the residential development, new and old institutions are investing in neighborhood amenities. On the drawing boards is a major renovation of East Liberty’s Carnegie Library branch, as part of its ongoing capital improvement program.
Meanwhile, on the neighborhood’s edge, two impressive restorations are now complete. The former Union Baptist Church, at Stanton and Negley, has been beautifully rehabbed as the Union Project, a space for community meetings, performances, art shows, small office space and a farmers’ and craftsmen’s market. Also, the grand Victorian gardens at the entrance to Highland Park have been restored by a public-private partnership between the city and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.
Through it all, East Liberty residents as well as its official community-development corporation, East Liberty Development, have articulated a commitment to maintaining the neighborhood’s cosmopolitan, multi-racial character. After all, says Ernie Hogan, that’s why he moved here 18 years ago: “I was living in a condo in Shadyside where I didn’t know my neighbors. East Liberty has great architecture and is truly affordable. Here, they look after the elderly and there’s a real sense of community. In the suburbs, people are married to their cars … urban market are the future.”
Up but not out
About one-third of the new housing buyers are coming from outside the neighborhood, says Ernie Hogan, and so about two-thirds of buyers trading up within their neighborhood. Hogan also points to two unique social-service/redevelopment projects that would’ve been NIMBY’ed away elsewhere, but were actually requested by East Liberty neighbors. In one case, a slumlord’s drug-riddled apartment house was converted into managed housing for mothers in recovery. The renovation blends in with other buildings on the street and there have been no complaints, Hogan says. Building on that success, East End Cooperative Ministry is planning to rehab another large house for fathers who are single parents.
Last month, the Mellon Street crowd provided a sense of East Liberty’s diversity in age, race and income, which could provide a broad base of stability for the changing neighborhood.
Buyers on ran the gamut from Brad Ward, an IT professional who works Downtown to Barbara Durant, a nurses’ aide and lifelong area resident. Ward moved from the Blackenridge area of Wilkinsburg – which, unlike central Wilkinsburg, has a suburban, no-sidewalks style -- to one of the rehabbed Victorians which had previously been vacant and condemned. “It’s a bigger house, with the charms of an old house and the amenities of new,” Ward said. He likes East Liberty as it is, he says: “I wouldn’t have moved here if I didn’t want to be part of the existing community.”
Durant bought one of the nearby rowhouses five years ago, when “Maelene sold me on the idea that it was an up and coming area. “It was close enough to walk to work and big enough for just me and my daughter,” Durant adds.
Durant is perhaps unusual – if enthusiastic – in that she not only knows her neighbors, she recruited them. “My cousin purchased the home right next to me. My girlfriend came to visit and she bought one, too. Then I had an ex-coworker, and she bought one.
“I should ask, ‘Where’s my commission?’” she laughs. In fact, after taking a tour through the new modular home, Durant said, “I want to get home and call my niece!”
For more information on East Liberty visit the PopCity:
- Visiting Guide
- Investment 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.
View of Motor Square Garden from Eastside building
Mellon Street houses (ELDI)
Maelene Myers with East Liberty Town Square master plan
Spinning Plate Lofts
Starbucks and PNC bank in Eastside building
Penn Manor Apartments
Union Project Cafe
Mellon Street houses (Highland Park CDC and ELDI)
All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene
except Kelly-Strayhorn © Tom Altany