East End retail plan draws opposition from community group

Advocates seek greater use than proposed auto parts store

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A developer's plan to install an AutoZone car parts store in the former Babyland building at Penn and Negley avenues has run afoul of neighborhood groups whose representatives seek a greater use for what they define as a gateway to three neighborhoods.

The Friendship Community Group, East Liberty Development and the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. appeared at a Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing Thursday to oppose LG Realty Advisors' site plans. They requested and got a continuance until July so they can retain an attorney and persuade the developer to meet with them to discuss those plans.

LG Realty bought Babyland and two adjacent properties in 2012, just after the store closed. It had sold strollers, toys, clothes, furniture and other children's accessories for 61 years.

Lawrence Gumberg, owner of the development firm, proposes demolishing Babyland and two two-story buildings to its west to build a one-story retail store with a 16-space parking lot.

In a recent letter to Mr. Gumberg, the organizations stated they will oppose a use that discourages pedestrians and fails "to contribute to the distinctive character of the district." The letter states that such a use would be "a liability that will undo some of the progress to date."

It is not the nature of the retail that the groups oppose, "but a diminution of what has been on the site," said Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. "They would take down a significant part of the built environment, and we'd get a one-story business built with materials that will not look like the surrounding neighborhood."

The area is zoned local neighborhood commercial, which the code states is intended for "maintaining the small scale and rich diversity of neighborhood-serving commercial districts" and calls for "compatibility with residential development."

The board agenda listed five zoning variances the project would need to move forward. The plan calls for less frontage than is required; no required windows or entry door on Penn; materials and facade treatments incompatible with architectural context; and no rear setback, 30 feet of which is required.

Attorney Jonathan Kamin, representing Mr. Gumberg, said he doesn't think variances are necessary, in part because the current Babyland building has no rear setback from the alley and that the slope of Penn Avenue would make it impossible to create an entrance that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

He said his client had already met with some community members but decided there was no reason to meet further after receiving the letter, in which the signatories stated that if Mr. Gumberg does not agree to work with them on a compromise, "we are prepared to do what it takes to stop development that would be detrimental to the community and the future of Penn Avenue."

Stefani Danes, a board member of the Friendship Community Group, said she and representatives of the neighborhood groups did meet with Mr. Gumberg, who asked about the neighborhoods' goals regarding Penn Avenue's success in attracting more businesses but did not share his plans. She said he indicated the area should attract national chains to be successful.

The nature of the proposed redevelopment requires "a big parking lot and curb cuts not best for an urban pedestrian," she said. "The city has designated areas for that kind of redevelopment; [Local neighborhood commercial] is not supposed to be for that purpose."

Mr. Swartz said the neighborhood groups might reconsider their opposition if Mr. Gumberg kept the two westernmost buildings and added a second story to the new one for more massing on the corner.

"We have worked hard to create unique and different features, with neighborhood character in mind," Mr. Swartz said. "This project he is proposing would fit in very well with suburban America. It's not going to be distinctive architecturally; it will lack any connection to Penn Avenue" without an entrance or windows on Penn.

"There is a larger community interest in new development. We are trying to build a legacy."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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