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City Seeks Land Swap To Ensure Access To Parklet As Development At Penn Plaza Site Moves Forward

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
The former Penn Plaza site has been empty since 2017, when the complex was torn down to make way for a commercial and retail development.

The City of Pittsburgh went to court Thursday to seek approval to swap land with the developers of the former Penn Plaza site in East Liberty, but community advocates have concerns the deal could cut off public access to a park in the area.

Enright Parklet sits on land owned by Pennley Park South, Inc. If left untouched, the development would eventually hem in the 2.28-acre park on three sides. Instead, the city, Pennley Park South, and four community groups agreed in 2017 to rebuild the park outside of the development through an exchange of parcels. Pittsburgh City Council approved the move in July.

Citing new access points, improved amenities, and Pennley Park South’s stormwater management plan, assistant city solicitor Daniel Friedson said, “We feel like we’ve got a great deal for the people.”

But representatives from community groups disagreed. Jennifer Haven of Friendship Community Group told Judge Lawrence J. O’Toole they did not have proper notice of the hearing, and asked to delay by two weeks so they could retain representation.

Haven and other residents raised concerns about whether streets within the development would be public or private. Jonathan Kamin, who represents Pennley Park South, said that question was outside the scope of the land swap.

“It’s a city and legislative issue,” he said. “This entire proceeding is under the Donated or Dedicated [Property] Act” and should focus only on the exchange of land.

The Pennsylvania statute asks municipalities to prove that the original use of the land “is no longer practicable” (for example, it’s surrounded on three sides by 200-foot high buildings) and requires that the swap be for land of equal or greater size, and of equal or greater value.

But Haven said her concerns and those of other community representatives are pertinent to the swap and the judge’s deliberations. Speaking by phone after court adjourned, Haven said it’s crucial to know if the streets leading into the park would be public or private.

“A park cannot be valued as public property if you can’t get to it any time [you] want,” she said.

In letters and discussions leading up to Thursday’s hearing, the community groups said that a private street, even with a public easement such as the developers are seeking, means streets could be patrolled by private security and could lead to harassment.

Community groups have consistently raised concerns about the future of the property at the corner of Negley and Penn Avenues, which was formerly the site of affordable housing.

Zachary Gumberg of Pennley Park South said the parcel is surrounded by public streets, so people will be able to access the park no matter what’s happening on their property.

“There’s not going to be any harassment by us, or our agents or whoever,” he said. “After this development is done, the park will be a park for all, it will be open on all sides.”

The judge will issue an order on the matter at a later date.