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The land that retail forgot

A Story of Renewal: Third of five parts

Wednesday, May 24, 2000

By Teresa F. Lindeman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Dick Sheffey still has a Sears charge card, but he doesn't use it much. Ever since the department store chain gave up on East Liberty in 1995, the co-owner of East End Formals on South Highland Avenue has carried out his own small protest by giving his business to other retailers.

  Dick Sheffey, right, has been involved with East Liberty retailing for more than 50 years. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Now he's throwing what purchases he can to The Home Depot, the home improvement chain that opened on North Highland Avenue in February.

The way he sees it, East Liberty needs that store to be a success. If hardware fills enough Home Depot shopping carts, other national chains may see dollar signs there, too. The big operators will bring truckloads of merchandise to tempt customers across the invisible borders of East Liberty.

The chains should have enough time and money to outlast the slow process of changing people's habits. "A mom-and-pop can't survive opening up a store and looking down four or five years," said Sheffey.

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

Earlier stories:

East Liberty Then: Initial makeover had dismal results (5/23)

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

He's had plenty of time to analyze what it'll take to make the neighborhood a busy, appealing shopping area again.

Born in 1936 to the owner of a Frankstown Avenue dry cleaning establishment, Sheffey was there when the community proudly claimed the title of Pittsburgh's "second Downtown," and he was still there in the early 1990s when the neighborhood's streets seemed dirty and dangerous.

The damage done in the decades in between was considerable. Between 1963 and 1979 alone, the number of stores dropped from 242 to 98. East Liberty has never really recovered.

But when The Home Depot opened Feb. 10, people began to think it could.

"We saw the bottom," said Sheffey. "We dealt with the bottom."

This time, just maybe, the only way left to go is up.

The second step

"I can pretty much guarantee that in the next 12 to 24 months you're going to see significant changes along the East Liberty-South Highland- Baum Boulevard-Friendship area," said Steve Bland, the city's economic development director.

Officials are now talking to national retailers about economic opportunities in the area.

Discounter Kmart, for example, is very interested in a four-acre site along Penn Circle now occupied by the Pittsburgh Police Bureau's investigations branch. A deal for the property -- one of the few potential spots for such a large store -- appears to be on track.

Whole Foods Market Inc., the country's largest natural-foods grocer, has confirmed it is looking at a site along Centre Avenue near the junction of East Liberty and Shadyside. Co-developers Molly Blasier and Steve Mosites Jr. have purchased a building known as the Witt-Gateway property, which could house the grocer. In addition, the developers would use Whole Foods to anchor several blocks of new retail development there.

If East Liberty gets a second large store to open, it may be even more significant than the first. Or at least, pretty close.

The city paid millions of dollars in incentives to bring in The Home Depot. Bland said that was justified. East Liberty needed an anchor store to replace Sears.

But Pittsburgh can't afford to spend that kind of money again. "The key thing is that we need a company to come in with a financial commitment to East Liberty," Bland said.

The theory that planners are working from now is that this is a good market to be in.

A study done last year found 153,000 households within 2.5 miles of the district. Among households headed by people between 25 and 64 years old, more than a third have incomes in excess of $50,000. Access by car and bus is pretty easy, according to ZHA Inc. and John J. Clark Associates.

The study's authors concluded that the right kind of retailers, which they define as large stores that can serve both the closest neighborhoods and the rest of the East End, should do well here.

Mysteries of East Liberty

The prospects for East Liberty aren't easy to decipher. Many have tried, as far back as the 1950s.

Merchants and residents recall a bustling place. Streets overflowed with grocers, shoe stores, pharmacies, restaurants and several theaters showing first-run, second-run, even third-run flicks.

Blessed with a good location and an easy commute from Downtown -- East Liberty was one of the first Pittsburgh suburbs with trolley service -- the community attracted businessmen looking for houses away from the city. Merchants hoping to sell them goods followed.

The heyday may have come around World War II, when Pittsburgh boomed with the effort of supporting the troops. Peter Bolanis remembers using a dozen 40-pound cases of bananas every weekend making banana splits at his dad's place, Bolan's, at 6214 Penn Ave.

Over on Frankstown Avenue, Sheffey was training in the dry cleaning and tailoring business. His father opened the store in 1931. Sheffey dropped out of Westinghouse High in the early 1950s because he saw his future in the business.

But, almost imperceptibly at first, the cash registers had begun slowing down.

"Suddenly a new word came into our vocabulary," said Bolanis. "Suburbs." A wave of new car ownership meant people could easily drive to new homes with bigger yards and fancy master bedrooms.

An active stance

The stores didn't disappear instantly. There were too many.

A 1959 city study added up 3.25 million square feet of gross sales space -- nearly three times the size of Ross Park Mall. From Mansmann's department store to Hahn's and May Stern furniture to several movie theaters, shoe stores, clothing stores and ethnic grocers, East Liberty had plenty to offer and total sales of about $60 million.

When Penn Avenue, seen here in the 1970s, ws turned into a pedestrian mall, it was supposed to spur retailing. It didn't. 
But merchants were worried, and wanted expert advice.

Consultants, under the name Real Estate Research Corp., produced a 114-page report that analyzed the housing market, the traffic patterns and the places people spent money. For example, investigators found only 15.5 percent of residents living in a nearby neighborhood along Hillcrest Street had made their most recent department store purchase in East Liberty. More than 80 percent had gone Downtown.

Based on all this information, the consultants thought East Liberty's stores were too spread out and the good ones too intermingled with deteriorating or failing properties. A more efficient development would produce the same amount of sales in 1.3 million square feet of retail space.

It was a controversial proposal, but the plan won enough support to forever change East Liberty. Roads were torn up, buildings torn down and retailers either moved or were bought out.

It had the effect of hurrying along a change in the neighborhood's demographics -- the pool of people that retailers needed to serve. On the heels of the so-called "white flight" to the suburbs, developers tore down many single-family houses and built new high-rise housing projects. The racial composition changed, as did the balance of renters vs. homeowners.

The combination of fewer stores and an increasing fear of "hooliganism," as a 1979 newspaper story described it, turned off shoppers.

The elusive customers

But the numbers still showed much potential.

Just ask local developer Joseph A. Massaro. He wanted to turn the old Motor Square Garden building on Baum Boulevard into an upscale mall. "I had people telling me there's a market there," he said.

Research showed that the high-end stores could find customers in Squirrel Hill and Shadyside, just a few blocks away. Valet parking and security guards would address any concerns about crime.

The customers didn't come. Motor Square Garden, opened in April 1988, lasted only 18 months. At its peak, stores filled between 60 and 70 percent of the retail space.

Massaro's research underestimated the power of East Liberty's burgeoning reputation as an unsafe place and may have overestimated the demand for high-end merchandise such as imported couches priced at several thousand dollars each.

Another ambitious 1980s project looked as if it could tap demand in affluent neighborhoods nearby, but didn't. At least not enough.

The Manufacturers' Showcase Outlet Center, a glass and china outlet created by East Liberty Development Inc., was supposed to revitalize Penn Avenue and create jobs for community residents.

One problem was that major manufacturers wouldn't supply an outlet that close to the Downtown department stores carrying their product at full retail price. Selections available from smaller manufacturers didn't offer enough variety to bring customers back again and again.

The outlet center closed after 18 months.

"I think one of the bigger problems is we were trying to layer too many development goals onto a single business," said David Feehan, who was president of ELDI at the time and now heads up the Downtown Partnership in Des Moines, Iowa. "None of us had been in that business."

The Darwinian theory

Bolan's coffee shop and candy store served 700 customers a day when it moved to the new Penn Avenue pedestrian mall in 1969. By 1990, it was seeing only 175 people a day.

The business changed tactics. Now it sells only candy. Bolan's main income generator is a special order operation in the back of the building, not the retail traffic out front.

Everyone who has survived the turbulence in East Liberty has adapted somehow.

Sam Arabia, the longtime owner of Sam's Shoes on Penn Avenue, scored a hit with the platform shoe craze of the 1970s. He took a chance on the strange new style and got shoppers from all over Pittsburgh.

He's since turned over the operation to his two sons, who look for special colors or styles that black customers from as far away as Aliquippa want but don't see in the mall stores catering to a mass clientele.

"They come all the way here and buy four or five pairs," said Sam Arabia Jr.

Serving a special niche worked for the cluster of antiques shops along Penn Circle South and for East End Formals. Sheffey and his new partner, Marci S. Protetch, aggressively pitch their special services in high schools and at bridal shows.

Others serve the area's low-income residents. For example, several discount apparel stores moved in when midmarket retailers were writing off the area.

Street vendors have made use of the much-maligned wide sidewalks along Penn Avenue. They sell T-shirts and purses to people at the street's busy bus stops.

There are store owners who complain that the tables look sloppy and block the fronts of their stores.

For Jamil A. Jami, the sidewalks served as a business incubator. In 1978, the former ironworker began selling during his off-seasons. Five years ago, he and his wife opened their own place at 6024 Penn Ave., selling wares from all over the world, including silver jewelry from Mexico and African black soap made with shea butter and aloe vera.

Jami, who is black, said the demographics of the shoppers continues to change. "I've seen the area go from predominantly black," he said. "Now you have a mix of customers from all walks of life, from all economic strata."

Try, try again

A few years ago, representatives of East Coast discount chain Caldor Corp. took a helicopter trip over East Liberty with people from local development firm J.J. Gumberg Co. The visitors couldn't wait to move in.

"When you look at East Liberty from the air and see the rooftops, it's just very, very impressive," said John B. Kramer, executive vice president of J.J. Gumberg.

Caldor ran into financial problems before it could come, but its assessment of the opportunities in East Liberty lends credence to the latest redevelopment strategies.

"Currently, the strongest market-based development opportunities are for big-box retailers," according to the June 1999 report from ZHA Inc. and John J. Clark Associates.

Many of those chains are expanding nationally, the study pointed out. East Liberty may be able to win their attention with its unusual mix of available space and its access to lucrative markets.

Big-box stores -- so-called because they're larger than traditional stores and come in a basic boxlike format -- are appealing because they usually target a wide mix of people. Kmart carries so much merchandise -- from toys or clothes to curtains and camping gear -- that sooner or later almost anybody can end up shopping there.

The ZHA/Clark study also suggests recruiting specialty stores and restaurants that may not be associated with particular income levels or racial groups. The study cited the Artist & Craftsman Supply store, which last year moved onto the corner of Highland and Penn Circle South. The business is part of small chain based in Portland, Maine.

"We have a lot of opportunity here," said Bland, with the city's economic development office.

But no guarantees.

The perception of rampant crime in East Liberty persists, despite the community's attempts to dispel it.

The competition that helped demolish East Liberty's shopping district 40 years ago has not gone away either. The ZHA/Clark study estimated that millions of dollars that area residents could be spending in the community are going to outlying centers, places such as Waterworks Mall and Monroeville Mall.

Sheffey is pragmatic, yet hopeful. "It never will be the same as it was," he said.

Still, the view from the wooden chairs inside his Highland Avenue shop is already changing. Lately, traffic from The Home Depot has been causing backups outside. "They're going to have to change the lights," he predicts.

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