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A year after opening, Home Depot says its store is doing well, and momentum is beginning to build in the community around it.

At home in East Liberty

Sunday, February 04, 2001

By Teresa F. Lindeman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Parking spaces -- more than 400 of them -- line up neatly in front of the Home Depot in East Liberty. It's a functional look, not a funky one. Architectural critics wince, and community groups bemoan the separation the lot creates between the store and the central shopping area two blocks away.

Mayor Tom Murphy, left, at the East Liberty Home Depot talks with Eddie Egerton, store manager, and Barbara Combs, city administrator, Monday. It's been a year since the store opened, and other national retailers are looking at East Liberty for a place to call home. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

The blacktop-coated acres may not be pretty, but they are helpful. For many, the lot serves as an imperfect calculator to keep tabs on an issue of importance to East Liberty: Home Depot's sales.

Last February, the store's grand opening became a neon orange billboard for the outside world. Look, officials said. See, this successful national chain realizes that the community's undue reputation as a crime-ridden, low-income area has obscured the treasures there.

In the months since, the neighboring streets have not been miraculously transformed. More cars travel Penn Circle, but not enough to create gridlock. Empty storefronts still dot the rather dreary retail strip along Penn Avenue where vendors peddle food and CDs on the sidewalks.

But the parking lot calculations are encouraging.

"Always seems busy," say nearby merchants and the store's own customers. "Plenty of cars there," a police officer notes. A developer asks, "How's that store doing? Traffic into the lot looks pretty steady, right?"

Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy doesn't bother counting cars. "How are your numbers?" he bluntly asks store manager Eddie Egerton.

 
 
More places to shop

Several retailers are either opening in the East Liberty area or seriously considering it. They include:

Kmart -- The famed creator of blue light specials is in talks to put a two-story store, possibly with shopping cart-enabled escalators, on Penn Circle North.

Whole Foods Market -- This natural foods grocer that serves up garlic green beans, couscous and barbecue tofu, plus contributes a percentage of profits to the community, is expected to be on Centre Avenue.

Arhaus Furniture -- A Cleveland-based seller of classic, yet updated, furnishings will open March 24 just across the Highland Avenue bridge, officially in Shadyside.

Sneaker Villa -- Based in Reading, Pa., this family-owned chain will open its sixth store selling apparel and footwear this month at 117 N. Highland Ave.

Seventwenty Records -- A sign at 5947 Penn Ave. promises a new store selling hip-hop music and gear.

   
 

"They're great," Egerton responds.

One 137,000-square-foot hardware store cannot reverse years of decline across an entire neighborhood. That will need more investment in East Liberty, more projects to bring the people back.

There's a long list on the drawing boards. A Whole Foods grocery store for Centre Avenue. A Kmart for Penn Circle North. A high-tech incubator to fill a former Bell Atlantic building on Highland Avenue, not far from a semiconductor design center proposed by Sony Corp. Retailers of shoes, records and furniture all are setting grand opening dates.

Had it failed, Home Depot might have scared away some projects. But, "we're doing just as good as the other [Home Depot] stores' sales numbers," said Egerton, adding the store is making a profit. "In fact, we're doing better than some of the newer stores."

It's those good vibes that East Liberty officials hope to use to best advantage.

The second time around

Keep driving around Penn Circle, past the Home Depot, and another parking lot comes into view. It serves the Pittsburgh Police Bureau's investigations branch, a familiar site to reporters and TV viewers catching the news. It is where police interviewed Joseph Cornelius, a homeless man suspected of murdering a North Side boy last fall.

East Liberty advocates would rather this be a place where people buy Martha Stewart curtains and Sesame Street rain coats.

Talks have been ongoing with Kmart for several months, but this negotiation is different from the one with Home Depot. Community leaders have gained confidence from their first big-box retailer.

This time, they want a store that connects shoppers with the Penn-Highland central business district. Street-facing windows would be great. They don't want another suburban-style sea of parking.

And before a deal is done, groups such as the East Liberty Corridor Chamber of Commerce and East Liberty Development Inc. want a master developer to create a strategic design for the whole district. The map would show exactly where a coffee shop would do best or where offices might work better.

New structures should also fit in with the neighborhood, not look as if they parachuted in, said Maelene J. Myers, executive director of the East Liberty Development Inc., a nonprofit community group.

"We need to figure out where all these pieces fit," said Myers, who is concerned that the big-box retailers all want to be on the periphery.

A Kmart spokesman couldn't go much beyond confirming the retailer is looking at the site, but he said the Michigan-based discounter already has several urban stores. One in Manhattan covers four floors inside an existing building, and another in the Bronx uses escalators able to handle shopping carts. "We can be pretty adaptable in what we do," said Stephen E. Pagnini.

It'll be tough making a big discount department store look like part of the urban landscape, but those involved seem determined to make it work.

The negotiations may even speed along the master plan, which could be done by mid- to late summer.

"I think at this point in East Liberty's development, Kmart is going to be the initiator of this greater plan," said Lars Olander, president of the East Liberty Corridor Chamber of Commerce.

This isn't the suburbs

Mayor Murphy stands in the main aisle of Home Depot, near a row of lawn mowers, and talks about returning this East End community to its urban roots. "It really is, in some ways, undoing the suburbanization of East Liberty."

He's explaining the city's plans to eventually make Penn Circle open to two-way traffic again, to re-establish the grid patterns of roads through the central business district that were chopped up during a dramatic -- and dramatically failed -- "urban renewal" experiment in the 1960s.

Anywhere from 7,000 to 12,000 cars a day drive on the one-way circle that the long-ago planners thought would make East Liberty as easy to shop in as Monroeville. The thinking these days is that the changes sped the decline of what was known as Pittsburgh's second Downtown. The traffic circle just sends cars zipping past the stores and the reconfigured streets confuse those who do want to shop.

"All across the city we're trying to recreate an urban fabric that people can feel comfortable with," said Murphy, who has taken his share of criticism for his ideas about redeveloping places such as Downtown and the North Side.

So why was a suburban icon tapped to help bring retail strength back to an urban neighborhood?

Something big had to replace the big, blue, abandoned Sears building sitting on Highland Avenue, which stood almost untouched since that retailer closed its doors in the mid-1980s. After some false starts, city officials decided to go after a hardware store, because every demographic group shops there.

Home Depot's local leasing people weren't interested.

Finally, in 1997, Murphy arranged to "kidnap" Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus when he was in town to speak before the Young Presidents Organization.

One of the mayor's co-conspirators, real estate developer Rob Glimcher, invited several people to a gathering at his Squirrel Hill home before the group's meeting. He then drove the car as Murphy gave Marcus a personal tour of the East End neighborhoods.

Even then, Marcus didn't seem convinced. "He said, 'This is not where we put our stores,' " recalled Murphy. "We said, 'Work with us.' "

It took incentives, help cleaning up environmental problems on the site, an agreement to put a community-oriented police mini-station there and a decision to generally allow Home Depot to be its familiar suburban-like self.

Only time will tell if it was too high a price to pay.

Meantime, said ELDI board member Tina Calabro, "Home Depot making a commitment has increased the business confidence in East Liberty."

A whole lot going on

It would be a mistake to try to link all development activity in East Liberty to a hardware store on Penn Circle North.

Home Depot's only connection to 10 single-family homes built on nearby Mellon Street or apartments in the New Pennley Place project may be to sell the residents kitchen tile and teach them how to install blinds.

Sneaker Villa, a family-owned shoe and apparel chain out of Reading, Pa., wasn't looking at hardware sales when it signed for 3,500 square feet at 117 N. Highland. When a friend suggested the spot, the retailer looked at the bus routes and the proximity to high school kids who like brands such as Nike, Timberland, Polo, Guess and Sean John.

"Where we've been most successful is where rents are pretty reasonable," said Jason Lutz, who handles buying and operations for his parents' business. The store should open later this month, with a grand celebration in March.

Many projects have been driven as much by the strong economy of last year and the tightening of the nearby Oakland office market as by anything going on in East Liberty.

Over on Penn Avenue, a sign near the former Regent Theater proclaims the impending arrival of Seventwenty Records, which will sell hip hop vinyl, CDs, magazines and DJ accessories.

Just across the Highland Avenue bridge and over the unofficial border with Shadyside, Cleveland-based Arhaus Furniture will open its first Pittsburgh store March 24 in a 14,700-square-foot former Rite Aid being renovated by developers Peter Gordon and Richard Brourman.

That's also where Michelle Frangos is renovating an empty 30,000 square-foot, concrete building for high-tech offices. Sony has already indicated it will take 10,000 square feet there.

If the project is completed, her tenants will have a good view of the new retail strip along Penn Circle South, which will be anchored by a Whole Foods Market grocery.

They'll also be within walking distance of the former Bell Atlantic building that has been for sale at the corner of Highland and Penn Circle South for three years. In December, East Liberty Development Inc. bought the 15,000-square-foot site with plans to put a high-tech incubator there.

This spring, the new Kelly-Strayhorn Theater will finally open inside the long-empty Regent Theater. The project has been waiting in the wings for years, but interim theater director Stephanie Flom said she's feeling the halo effect from all the nearby activity, including the buzz on Home Depot.

"Before people would say to me, 'What's happening with the Sears site,' " Flom said. "That's the first thing they would say to me."

Now she's being approached by groups enthusiastic about coming to East Liberty to perform. Already, the theater has signed up the Renaissance City Choirs, Junction Dance of Wilkinsburg, even a fashion show that will serve as an AIDS fund-raising event.

A pretty big fish

In the next several weeks, private developers Molly Blasier and Steve Mosites Jr. are expected to announce details of a retail project stretching along Penn Circle South, from Highland Avenue south along Centre Avenue.

It will be anchored by Whole Foods, the nation's largest natural foods grocer, a company that had been looking around the region for quite awhile and never quite found the right spot.

In this case, Home Depot does get some credit. The developers might not have seen the possibilities in assembling several properties along Penn Circle South, until they heard about Home Depot. "It was the very reason that got us looking at the area," said Blasier, of Blasier Urban.

City officials are eager to help out. To help close the deal, they're planning to make part of Penn Circle South two-way this year, even before work begins on the rest of the circle.

Urban sites aren't new for Whole Foods. The grocer is a sort of mission-driven food business that reuses older buildings, bans artificial additives from its shelves and yet serves up a tasty rotisserie chicken and country mashed potatoes. And a good cup of coffee.

"It really can become a community gathering place," said Sarah Kenney, director of marketing for the company's Mid-Atlantic division.

The East Liberty store, which will employ 175 to 250, will be the company's only location for hundreds of miles. Generally, that makes a project much harder to do and harder to justify.

"We're very bullish on Pittsburgh and the opportunity there," said Kenney. "We have very high expectations."

Safe and sound

Every six months or so, Bernie Marcus calls Tom Murphy to talk about the East Liberty Home Depot and see how things are going. Last summer, Marcus gently reminded the mayor that the Community Oriented Police mini-station hadn 1t opened yet.

In the months since, the police office tucked in by Vento's Pizza has gotten up to speed. The officers assigned there generally stop by a couple of hours a day to handle calls and offer advice.

Security concerns have scared more than one business away from East Liberty. Fearful customers stayed away from a mid-1980s retail project inside Motor Square Garden, forcing it to close just 18 months after opening. Neither the city nor Home Depot wanted a repeat of that, and they've been successful so far.

Like many retailers, Egerton hires off-duty officers to help with security. But he said he hasn't had any real problems, nothing beyond the usual. Any store can expect a bit of shrinkage, as missing inventory is called in the retail business.

City police statistics show nine theft reports through June 2000 for 400 N. Highland Ave., Home Depot's address. There were six reports of lesser crimes.

By comparison, the Lowe's Home Improvement store at the Waterfront also reported six lesser crimes during that six-month period, according to West Munhall police. It's difficult to compare statistics, however, because in-store security there has the right to file its own charges and police don't have those records.

Egerton shows no fear. In the past six months, he said, the store's probably made only two calls to the police.

A job half-done

The new Home Depot's fine and a Whole Foods grocer might be OK, but a Kmart would be a lot better, as far as Vince Arabia is concerned.

"I'm waiting for that. I'm hoping," said Arabia, whose family owns and operates Sam's Shoes on Penn Avenue.

People buying lumber and plumbing supplies -- even from nearby Keystone Plumbing -- don't stop by much looking for new loafers or boots.

Home Depot's Egerton is also ready to welcome a Kmart. He thinks it would help his store. At Christmas, for example, he thought customers were more inclined to go to the malls and strip centers that could take care of several chores at once.

In the meantime, he'll be celebrating the store's first birthday by just doing his job.

The staff needs more training to answer all those questions on plumbing and electrical work. More than 75 percent live nearby. Many are still learning how to explain the finer points of nuts and bolts.

Egerton also plans a merchandise review, using sales figures from the past 12 months. Riding mowers, for example, are likely to be pared down. He'll add box fans and heaters. "We sold a ton of them."

His most popular class? It's been a cold winter. East End residents, many living in homes more than 50 years old, have really turned out for tips on installing insulation.



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