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Editorial: East Liberty advances / A long-distressed area continues to bounce back

Wednesday, November 21, 2001

Announcements of new economic activity in once-distressed East Liberty are becoming routine -- fortunately. The latest good news is that Kmart, the discount retailer, is tantalizingly close to an agreement with the city to build a two-story, 130,000-square-foot store at 202 Penn Circle West.

Under the proposal, Kmart would buy some nearby real estate belonging to Duquesne Light Co. and Midas Auto Service and contribute $2.1 million toward the relocation of the Pittsburgh Police Bureau's investigations branch, which also is on Penn Circle West at a site surrounded by parking lots. The goal is to start tearing down the police building by Aug. 1 and have the site ready for Kmart by April 2003.

Kmart would thus join the new Home Depot hardware store on Highland Avenue, and a Whole Foods grocery store set to open by next fall on Centre Avenue. Several smaller stores and businesses also have opened in East Liberty.

All of this is happening in an important city neighborhood that for many years has been struggling with poverty, unemployment and urban blight. Yet East Liberty has a promising foundation on which to build -- a reasonably busy commercial strip, thriving, strong, social activist churches and well-known businesses and agencies.

A market analysis of East Liberty conducted for the city's office of planning in June, 1999. It discovered that there are 153,000 households within 2.5 miles of East Liberty, and among those headed by persons 25 to 64, over a third have incomes close to $50,000.

Moreover, East Liberty is close to the affluent neighborhoods of Shadyside, Point Breeze and Squirrel Hill. There is decent public transportation to the neighborhood, and getting there by car is bound to get easier as the city completes its plans to remove the disastrous street pattern and Penn Circle that was part of an ill-conceived plan to "pedestrianize" the neighborhood.

In addition to the reopening of streets, a strong public relations program, perhaps with a unified marketing approach, could help to efface the area's image problems. Steps must also be taken to ensure that the neighborhood looks inviting. That means cleaning up litter, enhancing landscaping and making sure that too many "big box" retailers don't produce a cold, asphalt and concrete-lined environment.

East Liberty is clearly on the comeback trail; the challenge now is to retain the momentum.

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