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One Building at a Time

Steve Mosites was on fire. And what he was most on fire about was a pedestrian bridge from Shadyside to East Liberty, Ellsworth to Centre Avenues, over the Martin Luther King Busway, a way to connect the city’s most tony address with one of its most tarnished. “East Liberty has wonderful bones,” he said to anyone who would listen. “The foundation is there for great success.”

Dressed in blue jeans, surrounded by framed ribbons he’s cut, Mosites clearly belongs to the beautify-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder school of developers. Looking out from his 24th-floor aerie high atop Downtown’s Oliver Building, he cuts to the heart of the matter. “People are proud to be Pittsburghers again,” he says, “and neighborhoods are our biggest positive. We’re moving forward in this city, but it’s an effort from the ground up. One building at a time. Always in a better direction.”

As any good developer does, Mosites was casting about for property to change. Where to land? Tired of watching East Liberty get beat up – all that glorious property next to everything – tired of seeing business skulk away over the rivers, Mosites set about doing something about it. It’s time, he thought, to give an ugly scar of land a good facelift.

But moving unlovely and unloved East Liberty in a better direction took far more than good intentions – as Mosites quickly discovered. With the years taking a heavy toll on a battered neighborhood, there were traffic patterns to reconfigure. And bus routes. Government agencies to woo. Non-profits to gain as partners. Parcels to assemble and clean up. Architects to hire. Retailers to convince. And so on.

A History of Boldness

If the idea seems bold, or perhaps foolhardy, Steve Mosites, Jr., comes by it honestly. Son of the owner/operator of one the region’s premier construction companies, Mosites earned an architecture/engineering degree in Colorado, then cut his teeth on family road-and-bridge projects. To this day, he has a strong affinity for bridges, having worked on and under many of them, including the famed Rankin and Westinghouse Bridges, and a half-dozen more along Route 28.

By 1992 he was ready to branch out on his own. Creating the Mosites Company, now a lean-and-mean seven-person development team, he masterminded the award-winning renovation of Fourth Avenue’s century-old Times Building, then went out of town, reworking Vermont and Alabama retail centers. Re-tooled and re-cast, they turned a tidy profit – and that’s all Mosites needed to know that he could develop retail centers as well as roads and historic retrofits.

Back home, he created the Murray Avenue condominiums, 1660-1680 Murray Avenue, an L around a landmark Forbes-and-Murray Avenue church. (Such a sweetheart, he threw in church parking and landscaping gratis.) Then he set his sights on East Liberty. Of all places.

Something's Gotta Give

In the heart of the wealthy, educated East End, it was Mosites’ theory that East Liberty simply could not remain blighted forever. Not with 375,000 people living within five miles, nearly a third of them having an average household income of $80,000 or more, and an average age of 35 – truly, a retailer’s dream. With Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, Point Breeze, Highland Park, and Friendship all a short walk, jog, or bike ride away; with more than half of his target market college-educated; and within a scant two miles of UPMC, Pitt, CMU, and Chatham – with their aggregate 38,7000 employees and 41,000 students – where others saw No Person’s Land, Mosites instead saw O for Opportunity.

Taking a deep breath, Mosites plunged in. Calling his new project Eastside, for the Centre Avenue zipper between East Liberty and Shadyside, he quickly found out what obstacles he had to face. First, his multiple Eastside parcels had seen multiple uses over the years, including gas stations, meaning underground storage tanks, meaning costly remediation. Then the name alone, East Liberty, East End’s most unloved neighborhood. With a tortured past -- in less than a century East Liberty went from farms to suburb for the super-rich (at one time the Carnegies, Heinzes, Mellons, and Westinghouses all lived there) to inner-city blight – the neighborhood barely survived its 1960s-style urban redevelopment, which razed more than 1,300 buildings and eviscerated Penn Avenue, East Liberty’s main street.

So: that address and environmental issues? Just a handful of years ago, either factor would have spelled F for Failure. These days, however, Mosites’ recipe for success is different: an ounce of optimism, a pound of perseverance, and a gallon of guts.

Working with government agencies and development groups, pouring in carloads of cash, Mosites phased his 90,000-square-foot development – starting with a national winner to prove that both concept and execution would succeed. When high-end Whole Foods opened in October 2002, entire East End shopping patterns shifted. And eyebrows were raised: not only was this Whole Foods one of largest stores in the chain, employing more than 200 people, at one point it was also the country’s top-performer.

Armed with all the proof he needed, Mosites threw Eastside II into high gear, convincing big-time retailers – Walgreens, Borders, Starbucks, Pennsylvania Wine & Spirits, among others – that this was the place to build. The resulting two-story LEED-rated complex includes a Borders, Starbucks, PNC and more. “The goal is to work toward the East Liberty core, one step at a time,” Mosites says. “Eastside II is a huge shot in the arm for the whole town square concept.” The third leg, a nearby Target – the city’s first-ever so-called big-box retailer -- is on track for Spring ’09.

“We saw the potential to make East Liberty a destination,” Mosites says. “Now, with the trend to living in the city, we’ve got plenty of momentum. In fact, the development is going so well that if we had the space we could lease Eastside II twice over.”


Award-winning writer Abby Mendelson is the author of numerous books, including The Pittsburgh Steelers Official History and Pittsburgh: A Place in Time. His last Pop City piece was on Pop Star Marimba Milliones.


Photos:

Steve Mosites

Eastside parking deck during Sprout Hothouse

Eastside sign

Eastside bldg housing PNC and Starbucks during Sprout Hothouse

All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene

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