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‘No Housing, No Development,’ Activists Oppose Plans For Penn Plaza

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
People packed a public meeting about the future of the Former Penn Plaza site to demand affordable housing.

People packed a church hall Wednesday night to demand affordable housing be built on the former Penn Plaza site in East Liberty, owned by LG Realty Advisors. 

No housing is planned for the Pennley Park South development; it is expected to have office and retail space. During a question and answer session, some attendees accused the developer of enriching themselves while the city’s need for affordable housing continues to grow.

The meeting was the first public presentation on the site’s future since the Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning found the developer’s preliminary land development plan to be complete at the end of February, more than a year after its initial plan was rejected by the Planning Commission.

Before planning staff opened the meeting, activists entered the room chanting, “Build it back, Penn Plaza lives,” and holding signs that read, “Penn Plaza matters. If it’s not for all, it’s not for us.”  

Randall Taylor, a member of the Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition, said he’d like to make a statement.

“Your presence here tonight demonstrates that there is a hunger for justice in Pittsburgh, and a particular desire for housing justice,” he said before addressing the city and the developer. “You will not destroy another home, you will not destroy another business, and you will not displace another person so you so-called players can make a few more dollars.”

The preliminary plan presented at the meeting contained few details about what exactly would be built on the site. That’s typical for a development at this phase in the planning process, but it compounded people’s frustrations.

Community activist Carl Redwood said Penn Plaza’s former residents have been forgotten.

“It’s the wrong plan here,” he said. “We should be discussing a plan on how to bring the residents back to this neighborhood who were promised they could come back. And there’s no way that that promise is even being discussed.”

Myrtle Stern was one of the residents who lived at Penn Plaza before it was demolished. She now lives in Verona, Pa. She said she wants to see housing built for people who most need it.

“I’m trying to come back to the city, that’s what I want to do,” she said. “My family’s here, my doctor’s here, everything, my friends are here.”

Toward the end of the question and answer session some attendees shouted, “No housing, no development.”

Attorney Jonathan Kamin said LG Realty Advisors owns the land and has the right to use it as they see fit.

“It’s market-driven,” he said. “At this point, the highest and best use of the property is for retail and office.”

Kamin added that a portion of the tax money generated from the site’s redevelopment will be dedicated to a housing fund.

“You’re talking about is a project that’s committed to be the first and only tax engine that will actually fund affordable housing,” he said. “These dollars are going directly into this neighborhood.”

The housing fund is part of a consent agreement signed in October of last year. It resolved a number of lawsuits surrounding the future of the Penn Plaza site and provides the framework for moving the development back into the public planning process. While it is expected to send more than $2 million to the East End Housing Regeneration Account, some worry that money won’t help people who need it most.

In May of 2016, Pittsburgh’s affordable housing task force found that the city lacked more than 17,000 units for people who make 50 percent or less of the area median income.

The East End fund would provide gap financing for projects aimed at people who make 60 percent or less or 80 percent or less of area median income, said Jessica McPherson, of the Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition.

“So, basically this housing fund money from the consent agreement is not guaranteed to do anything whatsoever to do anything to contribute to the affordable housing needs of the city,” she said.

Director of City Planning Ray Gastil thanked everyone who spoke, and said they’d raised some good issues. Addressing the question of how accessible future housing fueled by the Pennley Park South may be, Gastil said perhaps deeper levels of accessibility could be one of the ways to evaluate projects vying for the money.

The next public meeting will be held April 16, but in the meantime, city planning officials encouraged people to write or call with their feedback.