New era in East Liberty housing

Old high-rise site being reclaimed by new complex

The only reminder left of East Liberty's high-rise legacy -- a bare space at the neighborhood's western gateway -- is being reclaimed by the construction of a four-story complex of 52 new apartments and 11,000 square feet for retail.

The $14.2 million East Liberty Place South, at Penn Avenue and North Beatty Street, will complete the redevelopment of the former site of the East Mall high-rise, which was razed in 2005.

Work began more than a month ago, but the official groundbreaking ceremony is 10:30 this morning because the site, which once held a gas station and dry cleaner, had to be capped and sealed and old foundations stabilized, said Jim Eby, senior project manager for Community Builders.

The nonprofit also has redeveloped and is managing other former public housing high-rises in East Liberty. They include Pennley Commons, New Pennley Place, Penn Manor and East Liberty North.

They are all mixed-income communities. East Liberty North was completed two years ago directly across Penn Avenue from the current construction site.

"This has been a long time coming," Mr. Eby said.

East Liberty Place South, whose completion is expected by next October, is almost anti-climactic after the drama of East Liberty Place North's development. When North got underway in 2009, the parties involved remarked on the arduous effort it took, largely because financing was extracted at the height of the economic crisis.

"Probably only a thousand people had to work very hard to make this happen," Rob Stephany, who was then executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, said at the time.

In 2001, Community Builders bought three East Liberty high-rises -- East Mall, Liberty Park and Penn Circle Tower -- from a multipartnership group led by Federal American Properties in a foreclosure arrangement.

East Mall was 17 stories and had 160 units. Liberty Park was 20 stories with 158 units. Along with their demolition, another 174 distressed townhouses and apartments were razed. The 20-story Penn Circle Tower was sold for redevelopment as a Target store.

Target's popularity has made it a challenge to get retailers to look west toward the gateway developments, Mr. Eby said. Because of that, East Liberty Place South was designed for more flexibility so that larger retailers might expand into adjacent, city-owned lots, he said.

East Liberty Place North has six retail spaces and 54 apartments, 38 of which are for low-income households. The Community Builders is in lease negotiations with a sandwich shop and a full service Asian restaurant there, Mr. Eby said.

The less-dense replacement of subsidized high-rises for a mix of incomes has caused a shortage of housing for the very poor, a condition low-income housing advocates have decried as a crisis in recent years.

Mr. Eby said Community Builders fulfilled its mission to provide a mix.

"We are a nonprofit, mission-driven company, and a big part of our mission is to provide and maintain access to low-income housing but in a healthy neighborhood context," he said. "There had been no market-rate housing in East Liberty for many years."

One-third of the new apartments will be market-rate; the rest are being built with low-income tax credits and will be rented at percentages of median income, he said.

Former federal properties come with restrictions to ensure that the public interest is protected because the government does protect the public money that went into them, Mr. Eby said. Community Builders is legally required to fulfill conditions of a covenant that says that, if it were to sell, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would get the proceeds, and if Community Builders does not produce a certain amount of low-income replacement housing, it would be in violation.

"The percentage of low-income is negotiated," he said. "No one is expecting us to replicate what was here."

Tom Cummings, director of housing for the URA, agreed that the need for very-low-income housing is a crisis that needs to be addressed "with stronger policies at the federal level, and we don't see those resources going in a positive direction." One program, the HOME Investment Partnership, which provides funding directly to cities and counties solely for low-income housing, has been slashed by 50 percent over the past three years, he said.

But mixed-income redevelopments have proved to be more sustainable than the old model, which segregated the poor, he said.

Of East Liberty Place South, he said, "It has been an epic adventure, a long road. This was a massive undertaking by all involved, including former residents."

The URA and East Liberty Development Inc. took some pains to find replacement housing for displaced residents, and Community Builders will make final outreach efforts for East Liberty South, he said.

The URA had been able to keep up with 150 residents and help them relocate in East Liberty. Others either did not respond to mailings or the mailings were returned, URA officials reported at the time.

Lee Sims, president of Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty, advocated for low-income residents during the planning of East Liberty Place North and South. She moved into an apartment in East Liberty Place North in 2010 and said, "I love it." But completion of the development across Penn Avenue will not put an end to the issues, she said.

"Not everybody who wanted to move back has moved back. There are not as many affordable units as there were. And even though there's going to be more housing at the other side of East Liberty in Bakery Square II, that's all market rate," she said. "If mixed-income housing makes for a better community, then why aren't they all" mixed-income?

Low-income rents at East Liberty Place South will remain at controlled rates for 30 years -- $530 for a one-bedroom, $620 for a two-bedroom -- but the market rents in Walnut Capital's redevelopment of the Highland Building, Walnut on Highland, could allow for higher rents in East Liberty South, he said. Rents at Walnut on Highland range from $1,300 to $1,600.

Community Builders will soon post information for people to begin filling what Mr. Eby called "an interest list."

Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at

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