The introduction to the latest expansion of Bakery Square was as short on specifics as it was on the overall concept.
Walnut Capital, which owns Bakery Square, is asking the city to expand its Specially Planned District to include The Village of Eastside strip mall, a 14-acre site that is home to Trader Joe’s, Staples and McDonald’s, along with other stores.
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Jonathan Kamin, the attorney for the developers, explained that the property is currently zoned as Highway Commercial.
According to code, if the land remains zoned as Highway Commercial, buildings cannot be higher than five stories and residential use is not permitted, other than assisted living and nursing facilities, group homes and senior housing.
The designation as a Specially Planned District allows uses and building heights that are separate from the zoned areas around it. A Specially Planned District, or SPD, can have mixed use or single-use buildings. Bakery Square has office and retail space with housing (a mix of apartment buildings and townhouses) behind the site’s large office buildings.
Pittsburgh City Councilman Ricky Burgess, D-Point Breeze, introduced legislation to allow the development but it has yet to be reviewed by the city’s Planning Commission.
Past zoning variance
Walnut Capital requested a six-story height limit for the original SPD for Bakery Square. When Philips, the health care and consumer products company, said it would use all six stories of Bakery Square Office Three being built on the opposite side of Penn Avenue, Walnut Capital sought a zoning variance for nine stories for both the office building and a new parking garage.
When that zoning variance was denied, the developers sued the city. The settlement worked out under Court of Common Pleas Judge Joseph James was for the buildings to be built the full nine stories and in return, Walnut Capital paid the city $245,000 for improvements to Mellon Park, which is adjacent to its development, and landscaping improvements in the area.
Philips has since reduced its footprint in the building by about half.
Few details on new expansion
The presentation on the latest expansion given to the residents of East Liberty and Larimer on Aug. 7 at the Kingsley Association did not give any indication of the heights of the buildings that would be requested, the uses of the buildings or whether the developers would be adding housing to the neighborhood.
The Village of Eastside site was once the location of the East Liberty train station, which was torn down to build the strip mall. The building that now houses Trader Joe’s was once, according to the old lettering on the building, a post office. According to the 1903 assessment map of the city, it was originally stables for Excelsior Express and the Excelsior Cab Co.
The first question of the night was posed by Virginia Linn of Regent Square who asked whether Trader Joe’s would stay or go.
Todd Reidbord, founding partner and president of Walnut Capital, said it was too early to talk about who the tenants would be, but he did let it be known that the building currently housing Trader Joe’s would not be preserved in the new development. Neither would the old Consolidated Ice Company’s ice house, which runs along the sidewalk on Penn Avenue.
“We have a plan to potentially recreate some of the buildings,” Reidbord said. “Unfortunately some of those buildings are in the wrong place; they are too close to the road and they don’t allow the opportunity to create public spaces that are necessary.”
Later he added, “Frankly, I look at the post office building every day, it’s kind of butchered.”
Gregg Perelman, founding partner and CEO of Walnut Capital, later added that Trader Joe’s will stay where it is until a new store is built on the site, then it will move to the new store so that the old building can be demolished.
Reidbord would not get into any specifics of the plan other than to say the buildings closest to Penn Avenue along the site would be lower than the buildings in the back.
The developers also want public money to be spent on a new cap over the train tracks. It would make the walk from the East Liberty shopping district near Target to their property more inviting by creating a plaza above the tracks.
Is Bakery Square welcoming?
The concept of whether the development is inviting to all people was a sore subject at the meeting, as expressed by State Rep. La’Tasha Mayes of Morningside.
Mayes, who is Black, said her experience has been that she does not feel welcome at the current Bakery Square.
“I think that Bakery Square is not for me,” Mayes said, adding “I don’t see Black people working in the stores. I don’t see Black people utilizing the attraction. I don’t know if there are Black folks living in the existing tracts of this SPD. So those are the things I’m thinking about as I’m listening to this presentation.”
She continued, “I don’t know if the current Bakery Square is for me, or people who look like me, or people who have the same lived experience as me. So that doesn’t instill confidence and you want to expand the SPD, that I will be a part of that vision, or that Black people will be a part of that vision. And working class and poor people will be a part of that vision.”
Reidbord argued that the development attracts a diverse clientele.
“I challenge anybody to see a place that is more diverse on a Sunday morning or a Friday afternoon than Bakery Square. You see people of all different colors, sizes, shapes, from all over the world,” he said, adding that East Liberty is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city.
At one point in the discussion, Mayes turned to the crowd of 100 and asked “Black people, is the Bakery Square development for us?”
“No!” was the crowd’s response.
“So that’s where you have to start then. That’s your foundation,” she said to Reidbord.
“The mayor comes and gets coffee there every day,” Reidbord said, referring to Ed Gainey, Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor. “I see him all the time.”
It was at that point that Valerie Parm, the vice chair of the Village Collaborative of East Liberty — the community organization that called the meeting — stepped into the conversation to address Mayes, who said that the issues of gentrification, white supremacy and gender-based violence were missing from the conversation about redeveloping the large section of the neighborhood.
“That’s true it’s not part of this conversation, now,” Parm said.
“But it should be,” Mayes said.
“At this point, we only want to introduce the expansion,” Parm said, adding that there will be future meetings.