Whole Foods pulls plans for new East Liberty store
March 30, 2017 12:43 PM
Julie Jacobson/Associated Press
By Mark Belko and Adam Smeltz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Whole Foods Market has bailed out, at least for now, but that won’t deter the developer behind the controversial project at the former Penn Plaza apartment site in East Liberty.
The grocer announced Thursday that it was suspending its involvement in the East Liberty Marketplace development because of concerns raised by the community and Mayor Bill Peduto.
“Hearing from our customers and the community, it’s clear there are many concerns about the development. Until the issues are resolved, Whole Foods does not plan to move forward with the project at this time,” said Brooke Buchanan, global vice president of communications and government relations for the Austin, Texas-based chain.
The 50,000-square-foot store was to be the linchpin behind a larger redevelopment that is to include 200 apartments, 12,000 square feet of offices, and 582 parking spaces in the first phase.
While Whole Foods didn’t close the door on potentially building at the site, Ms. Buchanan stressed that it would be up to developer LG Realty Advisors to work with the community and the city to resolve the issues that have dogged the development for more than a year.
“We will watch it very closely. We will continue to watch it very closely. But at this time we are stepping away,” she said.
Despite the loss of its anchor, LG Realty and its affiliate Pennley Park South intend to press ahead with the project, attorney Jonathan Kamin said. “We understand the decision but will be proceeding forward with our development,” he said.
He would not say whether LG Realty would seek a replacement for Whole Foods, which will continue to operate a smaller store on Centre Avenue in East Liberty.
Mr. Peduto said he thought the company did “the right thing.”
“Their corporate model is based upon people and based upon planet,” he said. “And it would be hard for them to justify moving into a development that has such strong opposition from the people who live in the neighborhood.”
The mayor said there is still time for LG Realty to work out its differences with the city and the community. Among the issues, he said, are an affordable housing component to the development, enhancements to Enright Parklet, and traffic.
He accused the developer of seeking litigation rather than compromise. “They’ve tried to find legal means to work away from the community instead of just engaging with the community and getting this done,” he said.
But Mr. Kamin countered that by saying LG Realty had met with community groups 35 times before taking its amended preliminary land development plan before the city planning commission, where it was rejected, in part because of concerns about the lack of civic engagement.
“Throughout this process we have been involved with the community and have revised our plans more than seven times to take into account community input,” he said. “There is a small cadre of community members and competitors who are only interested in killing the development, and we have been unable to appease them, regardless of the concessions we have made.”
LG Realty, he added, had offered to include an affordable housing component totaling 20 percent in the development’s second phase as a means of compromise, to no avail.
“The mayor’s response came back demanding 100 percent affordability. That drastically changes the economics of any deal,” he said. “In addition, we have made numerous offers of settlement and accommodation along the way, all of which have been rebuffed.”
Kevin Acklin, Mr. Peduto’s chief of staff, said Mr. Kamin misinterpreted what the city wanted in terms of affordability, and that the current predicament is the result of a “series of bad decisions made by the development team.”
In announcing the Whole Foods decision, Ms. Buchanan cited as one factor the concerns raised about people being displaced by the redevelopment.
LG Realty has already relocated more than 200 residents from the former Penn Plaza apartment complex to clear the way for the new project. Mr. Kamin said the last two remaining tenants will be moving out this week.
East Liberty residents Mabel Duffy, left, and Myrtle Stern join protesters March 9 in blocking the intersection of Penn and Center Avenues to protest gentrification and the displacement of residents in Penn Plaza and other recent developments in East Liberty and Shadyside. Both women are being moved from Penn Plaza. (Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette)
The developer already has razed one building at the site and will begin preparation work as early as Saturday preceding the demolition of the second building.
“We have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in relocation payments and have spent several hundreds of thousands of dollars more in keeping the buildings open so people have plenty of time to transition to their new homes,” Mr. Kamin said in response to the displacement concerns.
The controversy has triggered a flurry of litigation.
City officials filed a lawsuit last month seeking to halt alleged demolition activity and claiming that Pennley Park, the property owner, has failed to provide heat, charges Mr. Kamin disputed.
Pennley Park, meanwhile, has filed its own complaint, claiming it had “deemed approval” to move forward with the redevelopment after the planning commission failed to supply written notice of its rejection. The city has disputed that, with Mr. Peduto vowing to fight “these legal tricks.”
Ms. Buchanan said Whole Foods will continue to have conversations with LG Realty. But she stressed it is up to the developer to resolve the conflicts.
“As a tenant, the responsibility lies on the developer to ensure these conversations continue. Again, as Whole Foods Market, we want to do what’s best for the community,” she said.
One who was elated with the grocer’s decision to suspend its involvement was Crystal Jennings, 33, an activist with Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition.
“That’s what we wanted. We wanted them to pull out,” she said.
“We wanted them to realize what they were doing to the people of East Liberty, the people they were displacing and the many lives they were changing for the worse.”
Mark Belko: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1262. Adam Smeltz: email@example.com or 412-263-2625.
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