Planning board rejects East Liberty development anchored by new Whole Foods
January 11, 2017 12:14 AM
The Whole Foods market on Centre Avenue in East Liberty.
The city planning commission soundly rejected a controversial redevelopment proposal for the former Penn Plaza site in East Liberty on Tuesday, throwing into limbo plans for a Whole Foods Market and 200 apartments.
Penn Plaza was torn down to make room for a new Whole Food Market.
By Mark Belko / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The city planning commission soundly rejected a controversial redevelopment proposal for the former Penn Plaza site in East Liberty Tuesday, throwing into limbo plans for a Whole Foods Market and 200 apartments.
Commission members cited what they perceived as a lack of community engagement as well as concerns about other aspects of the plan, including a reconfigured Enright Parklet, in unanimously voting down the preliminary land development proposal.
“It begins with and ends with the community engagement piece. And at the end of the day, I don’t believe there was any evidence that there were result-oriented parts of the application and presentation that proved that the community gave input,” said commission vice chairwoman Lashawn Burton-Faulk.
As the commission finished its vote, many of those in the packed meeting room broke out in applause. More than 100 people turned out last month when the commission took testimony on the plan. Many testified against the proposal.
Jonathan Kamin, attorney for developer LG Realty Advisors, said afterward that he was disappointed with the decision, arguing that the proposal met all of the requirements needed for approval.
He disputed the commission’s contention that the plan lacked community input. He said the developer held more than 35 meetings with the various constituencies and groups, adding it was “public engagement like the city has never had.”
Mr. Kamin maintained the plan was unfairly judged by commission members.
“What I take away from what the commission said is that they came in with a predisposition regarding the plan that is inaccurate . . . and inappropriate, particularly in reviewing a plan objectively, which is what they are charged to do,” he said.
“There are objective criteria that the plan is supposed to be tested against and we don’t believe the objective criteria was utilized to determine whether or not we have a plan that complies.”
Mr. Kamin said LG Realty will evaluate its options, which could include a possible lawsuit against the commission or a resubmission of the preliminary land development plan. He declined to comment on what would happen with the proposed 50,000-square-foot Whole Foods, which was to replace a smaller store on Centre Avenue. Construction was supposed to start in the first quarter of this year.
The grocery was part of a larger redevelopment proposal known as East Liberty Marketplace that was to include about 200 apartments, 12,000 square feet of office space and 582 parking spaces in the first phase.
It was to have been built on land that was once part of the Penn Plaza apartments, where more than 100 residents — many of them older and with low incomes — have been relocated to make way for the project.
During testimony last month, many bemoaned the lack of affordable housing in the plan, which was crafted for market-rate apartments.
Countering that, Mr. Kamin pointed out that LG Realty had agreed to commit 50 percent of the tax increments from the redevelopment to a fund set aside for affordable housing. He estimated that would generate $10 million to $12 million.
The commitment was part of an agreement the developer reached with Mayor Bill Peduto after it began sending notices to tenants advising them to move within 90 days. The deal included later move-out dates and moving allowances.
After Tuesday’s vote, Kevin Acklin, Mr. Peduto’s chief of staff, said the administration would “continue to encourage the development team and community to continue discussions and do what’s best for the residents of East Liberty.”
In rejecting the proposal, commission members focused mainly on what they saw as a lack of community engagement in its planning.
Commission chairwoman Christine Mondor said the only full-blown public session occurred “the day before you presented to us.”
“That is not a robust community process,” she said. “That is not representative of [staying] in communication with the community, and that is disappointing.”
Among other concerns was the reconfigured nature of Enright Parklet, with some members arguing that portions of it did not provide enough recreational space.
One who was happy with the plan’s rejection was Alethea Sims, an East Liberty resident who wanted to see affordable housing in the LG Realty plan. “I have seen the low to moderate income residents being systemically pushed out of the community that has been home to us for decades. It’s wonderful that they are contributing to the affordability. While you’re planning, plan on affordable housing right there,” she said.
Mark Belko: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1262.
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