East Liberty proposal raises theater concerns

A developer’s plan to build apartments next to and above East Liberty’s famed Kelly Strayhorn Theater drew stiff opposition from artists, activists and neighborhood residents at a court hearing. Urban planning committee, who chose to postpone his vote pending further discussions.

McKnight Realty Partners owns the Penn Avenue parcel that includes the theater and three other buildings. He wants to demolish a one-story building and build a six-story structure with retail space on the first floor and 38 apartments – including four affordable for low-income households – above.

The new building would cantilever over the Kelly Strayhorn. The developer team is committed that theater operations will not be affected during or after construction. Councilman Ricky Burgess and a neighborhood group called the Village Collaborative of East Liberty weighed in to support the proposal.

The commission, however, heard opposing testimony from 25 people, most of whom urged the developer to better communicate with the diversity-focused theaterboard and staff, and possibly extend its lease which expires in 2029.

Artist’s rendering of the retail and apartment building that McKnight Realty Partners has proposed for an East Liberty plot.

With just seven years left on its lease with McKnight, the theater has “no way to raise money for a building that needs repairs,” said Adam Golden, vice chairman of the board. of the Kelly Strayhorn. He called McKnight’s communications with theater management “sometimes dictatorial” and urged working toward “a partner-like relationship.”

Singers, dancers and other artists joined the virtual audience to express their support for the theatre.

“I will never stop hoping that great developers will work with community leaders to build in communities rather than on them,” said Anna Hale, a musician who performs under the moniker Swampwalk. “Let’s collaborate, and honestly, take care of the community.”

The perception that the plan could threaten the theater prompted many speakers to revisit controversial changes to the neighborhood, from the establishment of Penn Circle in the 1960s to recent gentrification, including the 2018 relocation of former low-income residents. from Penn Plaza.

“There are so few spaces left in East Liberty for black people,” said La’Tasha D. Mayes, president and CEO of New Voices for Reproductive Justice, located near the theater. “It’s the presence of black and gay people in East Liberty that makes it vibrant.”

“It’s really about enabling people to see themselves in their communities and making sure they can see each other in the future,” said Bekezela Mguni, another pro-drama speaker.

Attorney Bill Sittig, representing McKnight, said the theater was actually “the focal point” of the project’s design. He asked the commission not to insist on an extension of the theater’s lease as a condition of approving the project, saying it would be premature until the theater developed a long-term financial plan.

Commission President Christine Mondor said she does not believe the committee has the authority to insist on a lease extension for a tenant as a condition of approving a proposal.

She added, however, that the commission can demand more information about the compatibility of different uses on a site, ask for assurances about the working relationship between a developer and a tenant and ask questions about the preservation of a community asset.

She and other commissioners have asked the theater’s developer and management to communicate ahead of a commission vote, which could take place as early as February 8.

The historic status of the downtown property is taken into account

The commission also received its first briefing on the nomination for historic designation of two properties in the city’s Uptown neighborhood.

A 138-year-old house at 1817 Fifth Avenue and a garage behind it at 1818 Colwell Street served, from around 1935, as Pittsburgh’s first distributor for Rolling Rock Beer, the commission from historic preservation planner Sally Quinn has learned. from the city. The beer has been brewed in Latrobe for a long time, and Quinn said of it, “I think we can all agree that it’s close to our hearts.”

The house was the Tito family home, Quinn said. “The Tito brothers found themselves during Prohibition making alcohol for illegal sale. They were also involved in hijacking, so-called hijacking of alcohol, and things of that nature,” Quinn told the Commission.

Commission President Christine Mondor noted that former residents of the home also had ties to black baseball institutions in the city.

Quinn said the properties had been nominated for historic designation by community group Uptown Partners of Pittsburgh. Owners of the properties oppose the nomination, she said, adding that she believes developers are considering building condominiums on the block, which could result in the home being demolished.

Uptown Partners did not participate in the briefing. Afterwards, the community organization’s executive director, Brittany McDonald, wrote in Zoom’s Q&A feature that Quinn’s presentation was “inept”, displaying “unprofessionalism and overt bias”. There was no immediate response from Quinn or the commission.

The appointment should take place before the Historical Review Board for a hearing and vote on February 2. The Planning Commission is due to hold its hearing and vote on February 8. If those commissions approve the nomination, it goes to the Pittsburgh City Council for a binding vote.

If buildings are designated as historic, demolition or other exterior alterations will need to be approved by the Historic Review Board.

Anyone miss the CVS East Liberty?

Bank JP Morgan Chase wants to demolish the empty CVS pharmacy building on Penn Avenue in East Liberty and replace it with a bank branch, the commission heard in another briefing.

The proposed 3,300 square foot bank would be smaller than the drug store, allowing room for 11 rear parking spaces and a landscaped area where Center Avenue and Sheridan Square meet.

In October, the commission rejected a bid by Citizens Bank to demolish an adjacent half-century-old bank branch and build a new location at Penn and Centre. This rejection was motivated by fear of the potential loss of a separate former branch of Mellon Bank. No such concerns have emerged regarding Chase’s plan.

An artist’s rendering of a proposed Chase Bank branch that would be built on the site of the empty CVS Pharmacy on Penn Avenue in East Liberty.

“Obviously there is no historical relevance to CVS and everyone will be happy to see it go,” said Melissa Mayer, an architect working for Chase.

The proposed Chase building would be nearly 25 feet tall, but the second floor would only serve as an attic. There could be a mural or other artistic treatment on an otherwise blank wall, the design team told the commission.

A public hearing and committee vote are expected on February 8.

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @richlord.

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