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East End groups sign community benefits agreement with Walnut Capital for expanded Bakery Square

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Already a shaping effect on Penn Avenue, the next phase proposes to redevelop a 14-acre shopping center next door.

Two East End community groups, the Larimer Consensus Group and the Village Collaborative, announced Tuesday that they had signed a community benefits agreement, or CBA, to support developer Walnut Capital’s efforts to expand Bakery Square. The agreement pledges investments in jobs, home ownership, and public infrastructure — though the source of much of that funding and its impact remain unclear.

Pittsburgh City Councilor Ricky Burgess, whose district includes the area, told reporters Tuesday that equitable development requires strategic partnerships between residents and community- and faith-based organizations, government, and business and corporate interests.

Burgess hailed the agreement as “perhaps the most important … in our city’s history,” adding that it would serve as a model to other cities “in how to leverage development to equitably transform historical Black communities.”

Key to that effort is the CBA’s commitment to create 100 for-sale homes, both market-rate and affordable. The community groups, elected officials, and Walnut Capital officials all said a thriving neighborhood must allow families to build intergenerational wealth through homeownership.

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Walnut Capital also promised to employ union labor, invest in workforce development, education, and wellness initiatives.

But while company officials estimate that an expansion of Bakery Square could generate $100 million for the community — from a project that would cost an estimated $800 million — the CBA contains few firm dollar amounts for those aims.

Walnut will “contribute or raise $6 million” for the housing fund, the CBA pledges. But otherwise the firm commits mostly to fundraising, $250,000 over 5 years for technical assistance, with some specific support — up to $100,000 — earmarked for the community groups.

And most funding for community initiatives seems mainly to depend on participation in a tax-financing program known as a Transit Revitalization Investment District, or TRID.

When developers pledge land to the TRID, the city and the other taxing bodies essentially agree to forgo collecting higher real estate taxes for a while. Instead, the developer can use the money to help finance their project, or to make public improvements.

The CBA anticipates that 90 percent of the TRID money will go to infrastructure projects like the Hamilton pedestrian bridge, stormwater infrastructure, and the Larimer park system. Just 10 percent is set aside for specific community goals.

Larimer, East Liberty, Lincoln Lemington, and Homewood all saw decades of disinvestment that harmed their social and physical fabric.

K. Chase Patterson, who chairs the Larimer Consensus Group, said no one is under the illusion that a CBA will address all of the area’s challenges.

“It won’t account for the nearly 700 vacant or abandoned lots, it won’t build every home we need, it won’t make our streets instantly safer, or bring about transformation overnight,” he said. “However, it does mark the beginning of the hard work required to revitalize our neighborhood, which has been forgotten for way too long.”

The entire CBA hinges on whether the city approves Walnut Capital’s zoning application, which is not yet scheduled for a hearing.

In 2020, Walnut Capital purchased the 14-acre East Side Village shopping plaza next door to Bakery Square. They want to take Bakery Square’s existing designation as a “specially planned district” and stretch it to blanket the plaza as well. The point of an SPD is to allow very large sites to have their own zoning regulations, allowing developers flexibility while still incentivizing development that is attractive and dense with amenities.

A community meeting on the project as well as the zoning request is scheduled for September 27.