Rendering of the proposed development at the site of the Shadyside Giant Eagle.

A Pittsburgh developer is planning to reinvent a strip mall and supermarket serving working families on the Shadyside/East Liberty border as an ambitious mixed-use development — and some residents and community groups are calling foul.

ECHO Realty wants to tear down the Shady Hill Plaza — which is anchored by Giant Eagle — on Penn Avenue and replace it with a 232-unit apartment building, a 420-space parking garage and a grocery store that will be approximately 2,000 square feet smaller than the one currently on the property, says Phil Bishop, a vice president with the firm. There would not be a grocery store on the site for two years.

After that plan faced public opposition last year, ECHO Realty scaled back the number of parking spaces and introduced more green space. Bishop says the plan received Pittsburgh City Council backing for a zone change earlier this spring and could go in front of the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment as soon as September to receive approval to build up to 85 feet high on the lot.

ECHO Realty will make a closed-door presentation to East Liberty Development, Inc. (ELDI) on Thursday. A public meeting with the Shadyside Action Coalition will follow on September 10.

“At ELDI, we’re going to show our updated design plans,” says Bishop. “We’re going to talk about a traffic study and [make sure] we’re meeting the needs of the community.”

ECHO Realty owns more than 200 properties in nine states and according to its website, bills itself as “one of the nation’s largest privately held owners of grocery-anchored retail real estate.”

Community members who spoke with NEXTpittsburgh this week are not happy with ECHO Realty’s proposal.

“I totally understand it’s a business and a business has to do the right thing for the business — but we deeply believe you can do the right thing for this community, too,” says Georgia Berner, a retired business owner who lives in the Shadyside townhouses adjacent to the site — what ECHO Realty is calling its Meridien project.

“This has been a neighborhood Giant Eagle and it serves a much larger population, into Homewood and Larimer. This Giant Eagle serves affluent communities, the middle-class communities and struggling communities,” notes Berner.

The Giant Eagle on Penn Avenue participates in the Pennsylvania Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, which provides nutrition services, breastfeeding support, health care and social service referrals, and healthy foods to those with economic and socioeconomic needs.

With that Giant Eagle closed, the nearest grocery store where Pittsburghers can use WIC benefits is the upscale Market District on Center Avenue in Shadyside.

“The truth is they’re going to build a smaller store with a wine and beer section, and hot foods — because that’s the market they want to compete in,” says Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest. “It looks to us that the plan leaves low-income people behind.”

Giant Eagle’s media relations team did not respond this week to multiple phone calls or emails seeking comment. Bishop stressed that Giant Eagle is working to address community needs by building a “pop-up” pharmacy on nearby property during construction.

Pittsburgh Councilwoman Erika Strassburger voiced support this week for this type of mixed-use development in her district, which includes Shadyside. Though she said she has concerns about the proposal, she voted earlier this spring to allow it to move a step further in terms of zoning. She called herself a facilitator for conversation about the plan. “We do need more transit-oriented development — I’m all for that,” she says.

“What about food access?” Strassburger adds. “This is something Giant Eagle says it will continue to meet with community members on. And I’ll hold them to that.”

A total of 15 percent of the 232 apartment units will be deemed affordable housing and the rest will be market rate, Bishop says. He adds that Greystar, the residential developer working with ECHO Realty, has said it would provide a $50,000 fund to fuel public transportation usage at the site.

Ken Kunak, a member of the Shadyside Action Coalition, says that ECHO Realty is engaging in “a robust community engagement process” about the development. That coalition submitted a letter supporting mixed-use zoning for ECHO Realty’s project to City Council earlier this year.

“I think you’ll always get neighbors who have concerns about density,” Kunak said. “There’s obviously some concerns about development, some concerns about apartments and some concerns about traffic. Unless it’s a new park … people are still going to find change difficult.”

One ELDI member who spoke with NEXTpittsburgh says she saw Thursday’s meeting as ECHO Realty’s chance to prove how much the company is really listening to residents and stakeholders.

“I have heard different things,” says Donna M. Jackson, an ELDI board member who heads the Larimer Consensus Group. “I just want to hear what they have to say.”

Jackson was not pleased with the idea that the ELDI meeting was not open to the public.

“I think that’s kind of bad,” she says. “It doesn’t affect just a few people. It affects a lot of people. They need to come out and talk to the people at large.”

Then there’s Berner, the retiree who moved to Shadyside from Zelienople about three years ago and now lives in a townhouse next to the Shady Hill strip mall.

“What appealed to me [about Shadyside] was the beauty of the streets and the diversity, both racial and ethnic . It just looked like a nice place to live,” Berner says. And an 85-foot-tall apartment building doesn’t gel with her version of that neighborhood, she stressed.

“That’s something that just destroys the ambience of the community,” she says. “When you have something that tall, it prevents daylight from coming into the surrounding community — and that’s counterproductive.”

Justin Vellucci

A former news reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, Justin Vellucci currently freelances for a number of Pittsburgh publications and works as a staff writer for the music...