Why advocates say Pittsburgh should buy what’s left of Penn Plaza

The last tenants are moving out today as the city and the developer continue their court battle.

The site of a demolished  building at Penn Plaza .

The site of a demolished building at Penn Plaza .

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
Sarah Anne Hughes

Updated: April 1, 9:40 a.m.

The last tenants of Penn Plaza, a complex of buildings in East Liberty that has become synonymous with the neighborhood’s gentrification, are moving out today.

Tomorrow, tenants and advocates will host a memorial march to the site to call on the city to buy the remaining building and turn the apartments into affordable housing.

That would save approximately 100 affordable units in East Liberty, organizer Helen Gerhardt told The Incline. The remaining building needs work, she said, but the overall structure appears to be sound.

Pennley Park South, a subsidiary of LG Realty, began issuing eviction notices to the dozens of primarily low-income tenants in buildings at 5600 Penn Ave. and 5704 Penn Ave. in summer 2015. Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration got involved and negotiated an agreement with the developer that, among other things, allowed some of the tenants to stay until March 31, 2017.

With that deadline here, the seven remaining tenants are moving to other buildings including Mellon’s Orchard, where units were rehabilitated with almost $50,000 donated by East Liberty developers at the city’s request, according to a release from Mayor Bill Peduto’s office. The Urban Redevelopment Authority also contributed $300,000 to relocation costs.

“This is not a day for celebration, but an example of why we need better protections for low-income tenants in our city,” Peduto said in a statement.

‘Penn Plaza Matters Memorial March Against Gentrification’

Tenants displaced from an East Liberty building and their supporters are hosting the Penn Plaza Matters Memorial March Against Gentrification. It begins at noon at corner of Penn and Centre avenues and ends at the site of the former Penn Plaza Apartments.

Where:Penn and Centre Avenue (East Liberty)

When:April 1, 2017 at 12:00 p.m.

Pennley Park South’s plan to demolish the buildings and replace them with market-rate housing and a Whole Foods — about two blocks from East Liberty’s existing Whole Foods — hit a major snag in January, when the Pittsburgh Planning Commission voted to reject the proposal.

While the city and Pennley Park South are now locked in a court battle over that decision, affordable housing advocates scored a victory this week. Whole Foods announced that is was pulling out of the development (for the moment) after hearing concerns from customers. Activists handed out fliers at the existing Whole Foods last weekend calling for a boycott of the grocery store.

“It was a shock to all of us,” Gerhardt said of Whole Foods’ announcement. She said organizers have been engaged in a media and letter writing campaign for some time, asking a wide range of supporters to contact Whole Foods about Penn Plaza.

Gerhardt said “we had a really good response” to the flier event, both from customers and staff, who were “very distressed to find out in the paper that they were going to be moving to the site of the Penn Plaza apartments.”

That Whole Foods is no longer committed to the project “makes an enormous difference,” she said, as the grocery store was the planned anchor tenant.

With a case that could be “tied up in court for years,” Gerhardt said “it’s in [Pennley Park South’s] best interest to accept payment from the city, to settle and accept the will of the community.”

Gerhardt said organizers have not discussed this proposal with the city yet, but plan to raise it during a meeting with the mayor next week. While unable to provide names or specifics, Gerhardt said supporters with experience in housing issues believe “this is indeed a realistic proposal.”

However, Peduto’s Chief of Staff Kevin Acklin told The Incline by email, “We have offered in the past to acquire the Penn Plaza property, but the developer has not expressed any interest in selling.”

An attorney for Pennley Park South did not immediately respond to an email for comment, but told WTAE, “We believe we have broad support, but a small and vocal group of objectors and competitors is more interested in killing the project than allowing it to proceed.”

Penn Plaza supporters on Friday also released a number of policy recommendations “tailored to the conditions in Pittsburgh,” Gerhardt said, on zoning, anti-displacement ordinances and Housing Choice vouchers they want the city to adopt. As a member of the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, she’s “well aware of the city’s duty to address many decades of housing discrimination” against groups like people of color, the elderly and people with disabilities.

“The city has not been living up to the [requirements of the Fair Housing Act, which allows the city to receive Community Development Block Grant funding],” she said. “This is a way they could start to address that concern.”

“The mayor that I campaigned for has really been saying that he wants this to be an equitable city for a long time,” Gerhardt added. “I admire and respect the rhetoric, but he needs now to take action which actually provides a level playing field for developers and would make real our claim that we uphold the Fair Housing Act.”

This post has been updated to reflect that the new development plan calls for market-rate housing.