Bringing East Liberty back to life
By David M. Brown
Friday, January 25, 2008
With its ornate, arched entryway on Whitfield Street, the century-old former YMCA building in East Liberty evokes memories of when the neighborhood was a bustling retail district, second only to Downtown.
Older residents recall streets lined with restaurants, jewelry and furniture stores, movie theaters, supermarkets and a department store. That was before the neighborhood deteriorated as urban redevelopment backfired, analysts say, and use of the YMCA dwindled.
But on Thursday, officials heralded the five-story brick building as the focal point for revitalizing the business district in a neighborhood that has shown signs of rebirth.
The building will be converted into 35 condominiums on the upper floors and retail space on the first floor. A nonprofit corporation formed last year by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation gave the project an $885,000 loan.
“This is the first project really in the core of East Liberty that’s really going to bring life back to the neighborhood,” Maelene Myers, executive director of the East Liberty Development Corp., said at a news conference. “I cannot say enough about partnership.”
The below-market-rate loan — the first announced by the new Landmarks Community Capital Corp.’s Urban Economic Loan Fund — also is helping the development corporation rehabilitate two historically significant homes on Rippey Street. The loan has been combined with a $250,000 grant from the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority.
“What’s happening with the ‘Y’ is a major piece of restoring old, viable East Liberty,” said Arthur P. Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.
State Rep. Joe Preston, 60, of East Liberty noted that he and other public officials attending yesterday’s news conference played basketball at the YMCA when they were growing up. The YMCA was closed more than a decade ago, and the building is now vacant.
“It’s a good thing to see it coming back as something positive,” Preston said.
Neighborhood advocates say the first seed for the neighborhood’s rebirth was planted when the Home Depot opened on Penn Circle North in 2000.
Two years later, organic grocer Whole Foods made a successful debut on the other side of the circle at Centre Avenue. The Mosites Co.’s EastSide project brought in a Walgreens Drug Store, Starbucks coffee shop, and other retail outlets.
“We’ve seen a lot of success on the outskirts, but now we are in downtown East Liberty,” said Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.
Mark Meiser of Meiz Development Co., the Denver-based developer on the $7 million conversion of the YMCA building, said East Liberty is prime for developments such as the condominiums.
“The building is fabulous. I love the architecture. I love the setting,” Meiser said. “First and foremost, the timing is right for East Liberty. Whole Foods is nationally known as one of the best in the country. If they are here and prospering, that tells me the foundation is here.”
City Councilman Ricky Burgess, whose district includes East Liberty, said the project is important to adjacent neighborhoods.
“East Liberty has to be a magnet,” Burgess said. “It has to be bustling with development, with homeowners and shops. We hope to take this development further up and redevelop Brushton, Point Breeze, Homewood, the whole 9th Council District.”
David M. Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-5614.