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Kmart, Whole Foods scouting East Liberty

Friday, January 21, 2000

By Dan Fitzpatrick, Teresa F. Lindeman and Carey Checca, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Kmart, the huge discount retailer, and Whole Foods Market Inc., the country's largest natural-foods grocer, may decide to build stores in East Liberty, adding new momentum to that neighborhood's long, slow recovery.

  The Witt-Gateway Building at 5880 Centre Ave. is the proposed site of the Whole Foods store. (Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette)

If deals can be reached with the two companies, the retailers would open stores near different sections of Penn Circle, the much-maligned traffic route built as part of a failed attempt in the 1960s to turn East Liberty into a pedestrian mall.

Developers also see the Whole Foods grocery as a potential anchor for several new blocks of retail shops that would connect East Liberty with Shadyside.

East Liberty's sudden appeal to national retailers looks like another sign that a neighborhood long scarred by failed urban planning could reclaim its role as one of the city's thriving commercial districts.

There's much yet to be done, but just blocks away from the proposed Kmart, a new Home Depot hardware store is set to open next month. That development, plus a string of smaller projects, have boosted hope for the area.

The company is talking to the Urban Redevelopment Authority about acquiring a city-owned building on Penn Circle that now houses the Pittsburgh Police Bureau's investigations branch.

  PG Online graphic:

New shopping in East Liberty


The preliminary plan is to build an average-size Kmart store - not one of the huge ones that are located elsewhere in the region - and use adjacent lots for parking.

Whole Foods' proposed location is near the junction of East Liberty and Shadyside, in a Centre Avenue janitorial supply building that sits a half block from Motor Square Garden.

Co-developers Molly Blasier and Steve Mosites Jr. have purchased the building, known as the Witt-Gateway property, for $790,000.

If Whole Foods signs a lease, the developers plan to add space to Witt-Gateway and allow the grocery to cover 30,000 to 35,000 square feet.

The chain, which has more than 100 stores and another 30 on the way, bills itself as a combination of an old-fashioned grocery, an organic farmer's market, a European bakery, a New York deli and a modern supermarket.

The developers' plans, though, go beyond one grocery.

They want Whole Foods to anchor several blocks of new retail on Penn Circle, starting at South Euclid Avenue and ending at the Highland Avenue bridge.

Blasier and Mosites are negotiating land sales with several nearby property owners, including UPMC Health System, West Penn AAA, Yellow Cab and the Pittsburgh Parking Authority.

  The police investigations branch at 202 Penn Circle West may make way for a Kmart. (Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette)

"If they can do that, I think that would be wonderful," said Mulugetta Birru, director of the city's URA. "That will push things to the center of East Liberty and help connect East Liberty and Shadyside."

For Whole Foods and Kmart, though, several hurdles remain.

Kmart and the city have to agree on a fair price for the four-story investigations branch building. Surrounded by a sea of parking and a nearby McDonald's, the building was West Penn AAA's headquarters until 1993, when the auto club sold it to the city for $300,000 and moved to Motor Square Garden.

If it strikes a deal with Kmart, the city has to find a new home for the Police Bureau's investigations branch, where detectives bring suspects charged with homicide, burglary, robbery and other serious offenses.

Such a move could be popular in East Liberty, where community leaders claim news media images of suspects being escorted in and out of the building give the erroneous impression that their crimes were committed in that neighborhood.

On the Whole Foods project, developers already have a verbal commitment of $300,000 from the URA. They also hope to land a federal grant designated for bringing groceries to inner-city neighborhoods.

There are other problems, though.

For example, the grocer doesn't want to be on a one-way street. Developers want the city and the state to turn the four-lane Penn Circle South into a two-way street. That way, customers from Shadyside could cross the Highland Avenue Bridge and turn left on Penn Circle.

But the building is still physically separated from nearby Shadyside residents.

"The railroad tracks [and the east busway] present a barrier to access," said Michael Besancon, president of Whole Foods' Mid-Atlantic region.

To create enough room for Whole Foods, Blasier and Mosites need to work out land deals with UPMC Health System and West Penn AAA, owners of the two parking lots contiguous to the proposed Whole Foods' site.

Since West Penn AAA would be losing a parking lot, the city is trying to sell the motor club another nearby lot controlled by the Parking Authority.

Whole Foods' Besancon also said he is not limiting his options to that site.

Several years of looking have turned up a variety of possibilities. The hunt has focused mainly on the Shadyside-Squirrel Hill area and the Mt. Lebanon area, both rich in the college-educated consumers that have proven to be supportive of the Whole Foods concept.

"College is more important than money," said Besancon, who suggested academic experience may also introduce people to a broader variety of food choices.

The chain's stores operate under several different names, including Whole Foods Market, Fresh Fields, Bread & Circus and Wellspring Grocery.

The emphasis is on foods without artificial additives, but that doesn't mean the stores just sell hard-core health food. For example, hot dog lovers can find all-beef varieties next to those made of tofu.

The nearest Whole Foods store is in the Philadelphia market. In coming to Pittsburgh, the chain would probably start out with one 25,000- to 35,000-square-foot location.

The company said it is possible a a second store could be added in the next few years.

Whole Foods has a tradition of choosing unusual sites in sometimes difficult locations.

Besancon said a store now under construction in Washington, D.C., required demolition of property he described as blighted.

In Baltimore, the company turned an historic warehouse structure into a grocery despite the fact that shoppers had to work a bit to figure out how to get onto the site. Besancon said the store has done well.

Real estate brokers Langholz Wilson & Associates have been scouting Pittsburgh for several years, but it's difficult finding parcels of land that could support the grocery store in the highly developed neighborhoods that fit its customer profile.

The Baum Boulevard-Centre Avenue corridor, which includes the Witt-Gateway Building, has stayed on the list of potential Whole Foods sites because it has several properties available, said Langholz Wilson's Brian Kerr.

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