Two grocers want to open on Hill

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After years of lobbying, Hill District residents believe they are getting closer to seeing a much-needed quality grocery store in the community, but they are now faced with yet another problem--choice.

Two supermarket operators have submitted competing plans for approval to the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority for a grocery store to be built on about 3.5 acres along Centre Avenue at Heldman Street within a year.

On its face, the choice for both residents and the URA, which will approve an operator for the market within the next few weeks, if not months, seems definitive:

Will it be Save-A-Lot, a proven national chain known for its low prices?

Or will it be Kuhn's, a homegrown full-service store long established in the greater Pittsburgh area?

For more than 100 residents and city officials who gathered yesterday at Duquesne University's Power Center for a presentation by both companies, the general feeling was that this will not be an easy choice.

"There is still a chance that we could have both [grocery stores]," City Councilwoman Tonya Payne, told a resident who asked why the Hill District is limiting itself to one store. The Hill District has been without a large grocery for many years, despite repeated efforts of community leaders to entice a supermarket operator back to the neighborhood.

With 1,190 stores in rural and urban centers in 40 states across the country, G.F. Meyer, vice president of market development for Save-A-Lot said the chain, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of grocery distributor SuperValu, has long established its business model to fit in communities like the Hill District.

"We are not a full-service grocery store, but we are a full-product grocery store and we offer very competitive prices, especially in underserved communities," said Mr. Meyer.

The company, which opened a store in Wilkinsburg last year, has proven itself "the right fit for a community like the hill," Mr. Meyer said. It proposes to build a 1,200-square-foot store and parking lot at the intersection of Centre Avenue and Heldman Street.

The median household income of Save-A-lot customers is $35,000, and 55 percent of them live on fixed incomes, Mr. Meyer noted. He stressed that Save-A-Lot grocery stores flourish in low-income earning communities because the company does not have high overhead costs and its products are comparatively much less expensive than those offered by most other stores.

Based in St. Louis, Save-A-Lot would hire about 14 full-time and part-time employes at the store, which is estimated to cost about $6 million and would be completed within six months if approved said Mr. Meyer.

A grocery store in the Hill District was one of the key factors in a benefits agreement between community groups, the city of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are constructing a new hockey arena on the Hill.

Early this year, both the city and the Penguins each agreed to commit $1 million toward development of a grocery store in the neighborhood.

But Evan Frazier, president of Hill House Association and one of the chief negotiators who pushed for the benefits agreement, proposed another concept: "One that is more than a grocery store."

Mr. Frazier and a coalition of Hill District organizations, including McCormack Baron Salazar, a longtime housing developer in the area; Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, an urban design and architecture firm; and the Hill House Economic Development Corp., proposed that the community should expand its business corridor.

To that end, that group has planned the $24 million, 100,000- square-foot, Centre City Square, which would stretch along Centre Avenue between Heldman and Dinwiddie Streets.

"We should think about this as the long-needed expansion and development of Centre Avenue's business corridor," said architect Dan Rothschild, who designed the proposed Centre City Square.

That project would be an expansive complex with a full-service Kuhn's market, a pharmacy with an elegant plaza, outdoor dining, a cafes, restaurants and retail space.

"This is what the future of Centre Avenue should be," Mr. Rothschild said. "Our goal is to encourage foot traffic that will bring about development in this area."

With eight full-service stores and more than 800 employees in the greater Pittsburgh area, Kuhn's market, which is still owned and operated by the same family that started the business in 1967, would serve as the anchor for the development.

"I was born and raised in East Liberty and I have seen how a grocery store can change a community. Look at what Whole Foods has done [in East Liberty]," said Joseph Dentici, president of Kuhn's Quality Foods.

"We are not Whole Foods, but we have been operating in this region for many years now," said Mr. Dentici, adding that he had not considered opening a store "10 or 15 years ago because this was a hard place" that was troubled by poverty and crime.

"But the time to come in is now," he said. The company also recently opened a new store in Wilkins, he said.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's Chief of Staff, Yarone Zober, who is also the chairman of the URA board, said the board has not established a deadline to select who will build and operate the Hill District grocery.

"This was a chance to give people a sense of the decision we have to make, and we are extremely excited that we even have a choice between two very good proposals," he said.


Karamagi Rujumba can be reached at krujumba@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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