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‘It’s Embarrassing’: Opposition Of Proposed Development At Former Penn Plaza Site Continues

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
On Monday, residents and concerned neighbors gathered to protest the planned redevelopment of the former Penn Plaza site in East Liberty. From left to right are Matt Demers, Nick Ramirez, A.J. Wilson and Ruby Cooper.

At a charged public meeting Monday night, residents decried a plan to build retail and office space at the former Penn Plaza site in East Liberty, once home to more than 200 low-income and elderly people. 

Voicing concerns specific to the history of Penn Plaza as well as concerns about affordable housing in Pittsburgh more generally, they called on the site’s owner, LG Realty, to build affordable housing at Pennley Park South, and called on the city to change its development process.

Displaced residents and advocates were played into the room by a marching band, singing “housing for all.” Throughout the meeting, chants of “build it back,” and “no plan about us without us” broke out.

Though the meeting was intended to address concerns raised about the site plan as it was presented in March, there was a recognition from the Department of City Planning and others that affordable housing remains residents’ primary concern. Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, moderated the meeting.

In addition to the required agenda, Swartz told attendees there would be time to talk about housing.

“We need to figure out how do we become more transparent and more accountable in the city for how housing is developed,” he said. “I want to give people who come to the meeting an opportunity to be heard. We’re not going to solve the problems tonight but I think we have to lay a framework where problems can start to be solved.”

A central issue to the future of affordable housing in Pittsburgh is specifying for whom units will be affordable, many speakers said. Levels of affordability are pegged to the area median income, which is $76,000 for the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. There’s something insidious about that formula, said Joy Sabl of Point Breeze.

“In an area that is consistently depressed, it kind of works. But as soon as the area starts to gentrify, the median income goes up and up,” she said. “But it doesn’t go up equally for everybody.”

A single person making 80 percent of the AMI would bring home $42, 600 per year. Many are concerned that building units at that affordability level means housing remains out of reach for people who make less. Sabl said she knows the levels are set by HUD, but urged that housing be linked to the minimum wage and not area median income.

The whole proposal is just embarrassing for the city, said Celeste Scott.

“I was in Chicago at the Equity Summit. People know about Penn Plaza ... the development on the table is no housing in a crisis of 20,000 units,” said Scott, referring to the shortage of affordable housing units in Pittsburgh. In May of 2016, the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force presented a shortage estimate of 17,000 rental units. “It’s just egregious.”

It was the second community meeting held on Pennley Park South, as required by the consent order signed in October 2017. That document laid out how to return the development to the public process after being derailed by multiple lawsuits. Through more than 1,000 hours of mediation, Pennley Park South (a subsidiary of LG Realty), the city and four neighborhood groups agreed on what to do with Enright Park and how to address the need for affordable housing. The order created the East End Housing Regeneration Fund. The fund directs tax money created by the new development to provide gap financing to affordable housing projects within a one-mile radius of the site. However, the consent orders says that those units would be available to people who make 80 percent or less or 60 percent or less of area median income. 

The consent order came under fire last night for failing to involve Penn Plaza’s former residents. Four neighborhood groups—the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, East Liberty Development, Inc., Friendship Community Group and the Enright Park Neighborhood Association—were party to the negotiations, but the Penn Plaza Tenant Council was not one of them.

Randall Taylor of Penn Plaza Support and Action said development in Pittsburgh has to change. He sarcastically thanked Lawrence Gumberg of LG Realty for making so many people aware of the urgent need for affordable housing.

“Thank you, Lawrence Gumberg! Let’s give him a round of hands, thank him for opening our eyes, thank you for educating us. Thank you for putting this fire, this revolutionary spirit in the hearts of these people,” he said, as the crowd cheered. “We’re not angry, we’re just educated now.”

Despite resident concerns the Pennley Park South development is currently moving forward. It is scheduled for a Planning Commission hearing on May 15, though that date may change; it’s election day in Pennsylvania.

*UPDATED: April 17, 2018 at 10:25 a.m. 

*This post was updated to clarify that the estimated shortage of 17,000 affordable housing units refers to rental units. In addition, the Pittsburgh metropolitan AMI was corrected: it is not $42,450 as the U.S. Census estimated in 2012, but $76,000 as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for 2018.