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Landlords stymie Route 51 cleanup

Sunday, August 19, 2001

By Jan Ackerman,Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The signs are a common sight for thousands of motorists daily on Route 51.

"For Sale. Levitske."

"For Lease. Levitske Brothers."

"We used to joke about the signs when we were kids," said former Allegheny County Commissioner Bob Cranmer, who lives in Brentwood. "We would say that when men landed on the moon, they would see those signs: For Sale, Levitske; For Lease, Levitske."

One of the Levitske properties on Route 51 in Baldwin Borough. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Cranmer and others who have tried to spur Route 51 development over the years have been unsuccessful in persuading the Levitske family to join efforts to spruce up one of Allegheny County's shabbiest corridors.

Now, John F. Slater Jr., owner of a Brentwood funeral home, is leading still another try. Called Economic Development South, his 5-year-old group is a coalition of residents, officials and business owners who want to transform Route 51 from Stilley Road in Whitehall to Stewart Avenue at the Brentwood-Pittsburgh line into a tree-lined boulevard.

In 1997, the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County declared the area blighted, making it eligible for county, state and federal money. The designation also opens up the possibility of eminent domain action if property owners resist redevelopment.

The Levitske family owns much of the property in that 1 1/2-mile stretch.

"I have asked the Levitskes to join in," said Slater, who keeps the family informed of his plans. "Their response has been, 'We will think about it.' "

John Dowling, spokesman for the Allegheny County Department of Economic Development, said the county would like to see the corridor developed, but he was quick to insist that county officials are not considering any forced taking of land.

"It is a man's property," Dowling said. "We would like to bring the parties together to develop a plan or partnership that would work for the community."

Rags to riches

Who are these ubiquitous but somewhat mysterious landowners?

For more than three decades, the Levitskes, owners of more than $10 million worth of warehouses, vacant land and storefronts on Route 51, have ignored calls from public officials to improve their properties.

The head of the family businesses is Andrew Levitske, a former junk dealer, used-car salesman and polka-party master of ceremonies. Now 83 and under treatment for heart problems, Levitske owns many of the 33 Levitske properties on Route 51, either solely or in partnership with other family members.

Other Levitske properties are listed in the name of his mother, Katie, who died in 1968. Still others are owned by the Levitske Brothers, a partnership established in 1952 by Katie and her children, Andrew, Jennie, Joseph, Nick, Catherine and John, for the "purpose of buying, selling, leasing and managing real estate."

In the past few years, the Levitskes have made some cosmetic improvements to some of their Brentwood properties. While some are rented, many are vacant, with Levitske signs hanging on them.

Nick, John and Catherine Levitske are dead. Joseph, 76, and Jennie, 78, live in South Park, where their parents settled after emigrating from Poland. Neither could be reached for comment.

The family also owns properties in Bethel Park, Green Tree, Homestead and Pittsburgh. In South Park, they own a parcel that used to be the South Park Speedway.

Andrew Levitske lives in Whitehall and runs the family business from a building in the 3000 block of Route 51 in Brentwood. The parking lot is unpaved; a sign out front offers work to carpenters and grass cutters.

From all reports, Andrew Levitske is an enigma. He pays his property taxes. Often he uses prime commercial buildings as storage space for junk. He doesn't seem to care what the neighbors think about his buildings or whether they are rented or vacant.

People who have done business with Levitske say he is difficult during negotiations, with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.

On the other hand, the Port Authority was recently able to buy four pieces of Levitske property on Route 51 for its Overbrook light-rail project without moving ahead with threatened condemnation proceedings.

The Port Authority reached an amicable agreement with Andrew Levitske and a daughter, Linda, said Henry Nutbrown, the authority's manager of engineering and construction.

"They couldn't make a decision immediately. They had to go back and get approval from all the partners to accept the monetary offers," Nutbrown said.

He's his own man

Levitske spoke briefly to a reporter during a chance meeting at one of his storefronts on Route 51 in Brentwood, but, later, he failed to respond to a letter asking for a formal interview.

At the storefront, an "Open House" sign outside was the only indication that the store was operational. It was crammed full of used bicycles, exercise equipment, home and office furniture and a mishmash of other items.

"Take a look around," said a young man who works for Levitske but wouldn't give his name. "He's not sure what he wants to do here. But he is fascinated with Wal-Mart."

Levitske talked about hospitals and nurses. He said he had been in the hospital twice since December for heart problems and had undergone bypass surgery.

He brightened up when reminded about his days as a master of ceremonies on a polka show. In the 1950s, Andy Levitske and his TV Polka Kings were a mainstay on WTAE and other stations. He played the accordion.

"I still keep it up," he said.

"I owned a car dealership in Library," Levitske offered without being asked, as if he were interested in keeping the conversation going. But then he shook hands with his visitor and wandered off.

Fran Accamando, an Overbrook community leader who has dealt with Levitske for years, is active in several initiatives to fix up Route 51. She admires Levitske for his intelligence and determination, but she gets frustrated with him.

"There is no compromise with Andy," she said.

Cranmer recalls his first meeting with Levitske, in the early 1990s.

"I was on Brentwood Council. I went to his office, and he comes walking up to me, and he almost looks like a homeless guy," Cranmer said. "Then I looked around his garage and there was a Rolls-Royce and a Ferrari."

Family pride

Others who know the Levitskes say the family is proud of its heritage and accomplishments.

Andy's parents, Peter and Katie Levitske, emigrated from Poland, married while living in McKees Rocks and had six children by the time they settled into the Snowden section of South Park around 1920. They took in boarders, ran a store and bought and sold junk.

During World War II, when cars were hard to get, family members got into the used-car business. Later, they started buying real estate.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the family ran into problems with the Internal Revenue Service. In 1949, the IRS filed a half-million-dollar tax claim against Johnny Levitske, who was known as "Top Dollar Johnny Levitske" and who used to advertise live on the radio from a bandstand at his car lot in Library.

After the government seized Johnny's property, the business was carried on by his brother Andy, known as "Square Deal Andy." Later, the government filed tax liens against Andy Levitske and other members of the family, according to newspaper clippings from the era.

The family focused its real-estate efforts on Route 51, which was little more than a valley with a road through it.

Levitske tells people that his family was basically responsible for the development of the present-day commercial district on Route 51. They dynamited the hills and moved the dirt to make it happen.

Shortly after Levitske's father, Peter, died in 1952, his widow, Katie, and the children formed the Levitske Brothers partnership.

In the 1950s, newspaper articles reported that Andy and John were responsible for the new Miracle 51 shopping center, adjacent to Henry Verscharen's food and garden center in Brentwood.

By the 1960s, the Levitske partnership had interests in carwashes, warehouses, groceries and other commercial establishments.

"You have to give them credit," said Bob Bastianini of South Park, a member of the South Park Historical Society and a friend of Joseph Levitske's.

"They worked hard. They picked up junk, hauled coal, did a little bit of everything to get started," Bastianini said. "They built Route 51, especially Brentwood."

Time takes its toll

But as the years went on, many of the properties began to fall into disrepair, and Brentwood officials complained.

In 1977, a Pittsburgh Press article said Brentwood officials called the Route 51 corridor "creeping blight," but said the Levitskes were "reluctant to invest enough money to upgrade the choice rental sites." Neither Andy nor John Levitske returned calls seeking comment on conditions of the commercial district, the newspaper said.

In 1996, the Brentwood Economic Development Corp., now called Economic Development South, received a green light from planning agencies to redevelop the Route 51 corridor. A study that the corporation conducted found that the buildings on the western side of Route 51, where many Levitske properties are situated, are about 75 percent vacant.

The redevelopment effort is moving forward, albeit slowly.

In June, contractors began razing the former Joseph Horne Co. department store, post office and Beer World that were part of the old Brentwood-Whitehall Shopping Center on Brownsville Road near Route 51.

The $30 million Brentwood Towne Square, which will be anchored by a Giant Eagle supermarket, is under construction.

This month, Slater asked the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission to support his group's effort to seek $18 million in state money to begin studying how to upgrade Route 51.

On Friday, Slater's group will appear before the state Transportation Commission to formally request the money and to put the project on the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's master plan.

Route 51's problems are many: It is too narrow. Diagonal parking in front of businesses is dangerous. Properties other than the Levitskes' are run down.

"With cooperation of every business owner, plus the state, the county and both boroughs, we believe that we can successfully redevelop the corridor," Slater said.

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