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Whole Foods Commits To Former Penn Plaza Site

90.5 WESA
Construction of the former Penn Plaza site is expected to begin in summer 2019.

Developer LG Realty has a new anchor tenant for the former site of Penn Plaza in East Liberty. It’s the same retailer first proposed several years ago – Whole Foods Market.

“We’re thrilled, we’re very excited,” said Zack Gumberg of LG Realty. “We view Whole Foods as the ultimate amenity for the ground floor of the mixed-use development which we are naming Liberty East.”

The new lease commitment comes after years of legal disputes and community protests.

In 2015, LG Realty informed more than 200 low-income tenants living in apartments on the site that their leases would not be renewed. That displacement spurred a larger conversation about affordable housing and gentrification in East Liberty when it was announced in 2016 that the developer had reached an agreement with the organic supermarket chain Whole Foods. The plan was to relocate the store from its existing location half a mile away on Centre Avenue to a larger space at the former Penn Plaza site.

The original Whole Foods plan fell apart after affordable housing advocates raised concerns and the city planning commission rejected LG Realty’s redevelopment proposal.

In January of 2019, the developer presented its final plans to the Pittsburgh Planning Commission. LG Realty president Larry Gumberg said, “we hope that Whole Foods will come back to the project but they stepped away, what, two years ago,” he said. “They pretty much said, ‘When the City of Pittsburgh figures out what it is that it’s going to allow you to do, you know, call us.’”

In February, the development firm received final approval for its new plan.

Now a 50,000 square foot Whole Foods is back in the works. Built out during phase 1 of the development, it will be the retail anchor on the first floor of the development, which will also include office space and additional parking, but no housing.

Zack Gumberg said working with Whole Foods this time around meant working with a completely different company, since Amazon had purchased the grocery chain. He said from a planning perspective, it was a different deal as well.

“Originally we had a 50,000 square foot store, but parking was sitting behind the store….after lots and lots of dialogue we have come to the new plan which is actually a better plan for the site.” The site’s final design includes more access points for the store, and a more vertical design, with underground parking.

Crystal Jennings of the advocacy group Penn Plaza Support and Action said she wishes a more affordable supermarket was coming to the neighborhood, but that the fight for affordable housing on the site was compromised the day the property was rezoned from residential to mixed-use.

“Even though we would like housing there, it can’t be there. There’s no way we can get housing back on that site because of the zoning change,” Jennings sad. “It’s definitely sad, sad news…but we kind of figured this was going to happen.”

The first phase of the redevelopment is expected to generate roughly $6 million in transit revitalization funding. Approximately $2 million of that will go into the East End affordable housing fund, which will be dedicated for projects within three quarters of a mile of the site.

Construction is slated to begin this summer. Phase one is expected to be completed by summer of 2021.