By: Mark Belko
Standing near Penn Avenue in East Liberty, Mayor Bill Peduto recalled the days when the land stretching behind him contained a parking lot, indoor tennis courts, a car wash, and a taxicab station.
Mr. Peduto and a host of other dignitaries were in East Liberty on Wednesday to celebrate the formal opening of a $150 million transit center, the centerpiece of the neighborhood’s ongoing revitalization.
The urban state Mr. Peduto remembered from 14 years ago has been replaced by a brand-new reconstructed transit station with a direct link to the Martin Luther King Jr. Busway, an apartment complex that will hold 360 market-rate units, a 554-space parking structure, a 120-space bike garage, and 43,000 square feet of retail space — all spread over six acres between Penn and South Highland avenues.
There’s also a new pedestrian bridge linking East Liberty and Shadyside and a new elevated street built on top of the parking structure that will enable people to walk from the new Target store on Penn to Whole Foods Market on Centre near South Highland.
To the politicians and others who gathered for the ribbon cutting Wednesday, intermodal transportation, a clunky term if there ever was one, never looked so good. They heralded the development as another key step in East Liberty’s rebirth.
“This is definitely one of the most invigorating projects that I have seen and been associated with,” said Terry Garcia-Crews, regional administrator for the Federal Transit Administration, which managed a $15 million federal grant awarded for the project.
Nearly 20 funding sources, public and private, were cobbled together to pay for the project.
Beyond the platitudes, Robert Rubinstein, Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority acting executive director, said the project already is producing tangible results.
He said transit ridership at the East Liberty station is up 20 percent because of the new center, which was operating before the ribbon cutting. It also is expected to save the Port Authority money and riders time.
For some, the sprawling campus that still is very much a work in progress represented the fulfillment of dreams that began decades ago when East Liberty was filled with blight and hopelessness and residents realized something had to be done.
“All I can say is what a day, what a day, what a day, what a day, what a day,” said Maelene Myers, East Liberty Development Inc. executive director. “Standing here today to talk about this day, I can look around and say, wow!”
At the same time, Ms. Myers got emotional when she urged those gathered at the center to make sure that those longtime residents who “laid the groundwork” for much of the redevelopment that has taken place are able to stay to enjoy its fruits.
The recent controversy over the neighborhood’s Penn Plaza redevelopment and the potential displacement of residents has highlighted the need for more affordable housing to supplement the market-rate units being built as part of East Liberty’s resurgence.
Mr. Peduto has addressed the issue by creating an affordable housing fund to help residents vulnerable to displacement, an initiative Ms. Myers supports. ELDI also is looking to create 500 units of affordable housing over the next five years “to stay ahead of the market,” she said.
At the transit center, the first residents will be moving into their apartment units today. The first of three apartment buildings being built is just about finished and the others should be done by the end of 2016, said Mark Minnerly, director of real estate for the Mosites Co., the developer behind the $90 million private portion of the project.
Mr. Minnerly said Mosites so far has letters of intent or commitments from retailers for the majority of the 43,000 square feet of retail space.
Mosites views its latest work as the final phase of its “Eastside” developments, ones that have brought Whole Foods Market and Target to the neighborhood. But for East Liberty as a whole, there’s more to be done, the mayor vowed.
“We’re not even halfway to seeing this neighborhood come back to its full luster,” he said.
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