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East Liberty Then: Initial makeover had dismal results

A Story of Renewal: Second of five parts

Tuesday, May 23, 2000

By Dan Fitzpatrick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

On June 16, 1960, a crowd formed in City Council chambers. It was so large that chairs and loudspeakers had to be set up in the lobby to handle the overflow. "The place was mobbed," said former Urban Redevelopment Authority Director Bob Pease, who was there that day.

  Bob Pease, former director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, strolls down Penn Avenue in the heart of the East Liberty renewal project he directed. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)
People packed the room to hear about Pease's plans for saving East Liberty, a neighborhood fixed in memory as a chaotic, turn-of-the-century shopping bazaar, second only to Downtown in size and popularity. Acting on the competitive fears of East Liberty's largest retailers, Pease proposed to redevelop an area three-fourths the size of Downtown. At 254 acres, it was the largest urban renewal project ever attempted in Pittsburgh.

"We felt we had a good plan," said Pease, now 75. "We thought it would work."

Some buildings would be rehabilitated, and some would be demolished. New apartments and townhomes would flank new department stores. A four-lane road would loop around a new pedestrian mall, and the new road would connect to a new highway, freeing the center of East Liberty from congestion and allowing drivers to park, walk and shop.

    A Story of Renewal: The PG's look at Pittsburgh's history of urban renewal

East Liberty Now: Poised for renewal, seeing some results

Tomorrow: Pittsburgh’s second downtown.

Earlier story:

In East Liberty and elsewhere, Pittsburgh's dominant public policy tool didn't work out as planned (5/21)

Wanting to emphasize community input over top-down planning, Pease organized more than 280 meetings with local businesses and homeowners. During the planning, he typically spent three nights a week in the neighborhood. He agreed to leave about half of the 254 acres untouched, asking some local property owners to rehabilitate their homes and offering to help others buy new ones.

"The scheme, we thought, was a good scheme," Pease said. "But it didn't work."

The story of East Liberty's decline exposes the thin line separating good intentions from unintended consequences. Pease tried to do everything right in East Liberty. Yet, nearly everything went wrong.

Parts of the project, he said, "failed for reasons we did not appreciate."

At that City Council hearing in 1960, several people warned council members not to approve the renewal project. An attorney representing an East Liberty restaurateur told Council: "You are not obligated to accept what they've done."

East Liberty in 1965, post-renewal. (file photo) 
Irwin Price, the owner of a small East Liberty dress shop, warned that the pedestrian mall, loop road and perimeter parking would place customers three, four and five blocks from his store and discourage people from walking in cold weather.

But Sigmund Hahn, owner of East Liberty's Hahn Furniture Co. and one of the project's biggest boosters, said the renewal of East Liberty "would benefit the small merchant more than the big one, because the bigger stores do not need any help."

Herbert Mansmann, owner of Mansmann's Department Store and another backer of the project, said earlier, "Unless the renewal program is put into operation very soon, many more business concerns will abandon East Liberty forever."

City Council voted 7-1 in favor of the project.

The URA, in turn, removed more than 1,200 homes, relocated 3,800 people and reduced the size of the business district from 3.2 million square feet to 1.9 million square feet. Working with private developers, the URA added more than 1,800 new apartments and townhomes. It also added more than 2,000 parking spaces.

The work made little difference. Many businesses abandoned East Liberty anyway. Mansmann's was one. Hahn Furniture was another.

Small businesses fared the worst, though. Forced to wait through six years of construction work and unable to get much help with relocation costs, more than 280 merchants probably closed their doors, one study estimated.

Those remaining couldn't afford some of the storefront renovations suggested by the URA. New suburban malls cut into business, too.

"Suburban malls were developing so fast, East Liberty never had a chance," Pease said.

The redevelopment of East Liberty was not the URA's idea, originally. A group of merchants, led by Hahn and Mansmann, suggested it.

For help, Pease turned to Al Jacobs, a young planner then working for the Pittsburgh Regional Planning Association.

After Jacobs got the assignment, he toured the neighborhood. He remembers "screwed-up intersections" and "lots and lots of vacant stores." Now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, he said, "You could not miss those. You saw lots of really bad buildings."

Jacobs was the one who suggested the pedestrian mall and the ring road. "It had currency at the time," he said. More than 90 cities were considering automobile-free retail plans, inspired by architect Vic Gruen's proposal to circle Downtown Ft. Worth, Texas with a ring road and connect it to six 10,000-car garages.

The road and mall appeared to make sense, too. East Liberty had no highway access, and most drivers who used Penn and Highland avenues did not stop to shop. They used the roads as arterial routes. By closing the center of East Liberty to traffic and forcing cars around the business district, people who wanted to shop in East Liberty would do so.

Those who did not stayed out of the way.

This idea, though, hinged on a state Highway Department promise to build a new highway from East Liberty to Downtown, following an old Penn Central Transportation track.

That never happened, thus dooming the loop road.

It "was right up to date with the fashions of the day," said Edward Muller, a local historian and professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

But Jacobs, when interviewed, said he had a few doubts about the project while designing it. For one, the plan essentially was trying to transform local streets into a freeway of sorts that would run through a city neighborhood.

He also worried whether there would be a market for all the new housing. Jacobs asked that apartments be built close to the retail center, a recommendation that led to the three privately owned, low-income high-rises now surrounding East Liberty's commercial district.

Jacobs did not like how they turned out. Most of the new apartments went to low- and moderate-income tenants, as developers took advantage of a 1968 law that involved the federal government in privately subsidized housing.

But having more low-income families in the area left local shops with a smaller customer base and less revenue. Merchants, as a result, were unable to afford some of the improvements and rehabilitation work Pease envisioned.

Life was easier for the district's largest retailers. Places such as Hahn Furniture, Sears and Mansmann's favored the project from the beginning and had enough money to buy prime parcels from the URA.

But most small shops could not afford to buy land from the URA. At that time, federal rules provided dislocated businesses with only $25,000 -- not enough to purchase new parcels. With nowhere to go, many stores never reopened, according to an East Liberty case study authored in 1974 by Sorley Sheinberg, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. Of the 575 businesses displaced in the early 1960s, only 292 remained in 1970.

The district was lively before renewal. In 1959, there were drug, liquor, hardware, department, clothing, shoe, jewelry and auto parts stores. "We didn't have to go Downtown for anything," said Floyd Coles, who lived in the neighborhood during renewal.

Of 3.2 million square feet of commercial space, only 100,000 square feet of the first floor space was vacant in 1959. A survey of 1,500 people showed that most people still shopped in East Liberty, with the exception of people with household incomes higher than $6,200 (about $35,400 in today's dollars).

But the same market report showed that the business district's total volume was $45 million, down from a peak of $90 million.

"If East Liberty stayed the same, would it be better than it is today?" asked Moe Coleman, who helped East Liberty's homeowners cope with the project. "Or, would it be any worse?"

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