An empty, three-acre parking lot lies at the corner of Station Street and Euclid Avenue.
You can’t actually park there. Weeds grow in the cracked cement between lines of faded paint.
Pittsburgh has plenty of empty parking lots, but this one is important. It’s owned by the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority and has become the centerpiece of its latest attempt to redevelop East Liberty, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood at the core of Pittsburgh’s economic recovery.
Mayor Bill Peduto has said many times he wants the residents who have lived through the neighborhood's hard times to benefit from and enjoy the prosperity yet to come.
But some East Liberty residents are skeptical. That lot at Station and Euclid has already been the site of a redevelopment effort, and they remember how it worked out.
Business was booming
The lot is known as Mellon’s Orchard South, an homage to the neighborhood’s 19th century farming past and its use as grazing land in years prior.
Banker George Negley and his wife Eliza, a North Sider, bought the property around 1889, fashioning a colonial-style mansion accessible by Rural Street, then a private driveway. When he died, businessmen built a Dollar Savings Bank, and a couple decades later, when they all moved out, the area was home to several small, single-family brick homes.
Martha DeMarzi, 81, moved in with her parents a few blocks east along what is now Centre Avenue shortly after the Second World War. She remembers darting between the eight theatres that lined Penn Avenue as a girl.
“They had crystal chandeliers,” she said. “There was a lot to do. We used to walk up and down Penn Avenue at night.”
She remembers her neighbors and the friendly guards at Westinghouse Electric company just a block from her house.
“They would talk to the neighborhood people. We got to know them. They used to send me up to the neighborhood grocery store to get cherries or something for them to eat while they were on guard,” she said.
People considered East Liberty the next-best-thing to Downtown, she said.
Pittsburgh kids like Gene Kelly and Billy Strayhorn were becoming famous and came back to the old blocks to perform. The Regent Theatre thrived, and was later renamed the Kelly-Strayhorn.
But it’s the only one left.
By the 1960s, the neighborhood had changed. Pittsburgh’s population plummeted as families followed the national trend, fleeing to more spacious, neighboring suburbs. East Liberty leaders feared the commercial district would falter, so they pitched a proactive urban renewal plan fueled by federal funding.
Everything around DeMarzi – save her street and the baptist church around the corner – were leveled, including the row of brick houses on Mellon’s Orchard. For the first time, the three-acre plot became a parking lot, this time for an ultra-modern Gulf gas station.
Fuel cost around 34 cents a gallon.
Watching it burn
Street names were changed to delineate stretches between Highland, Penn and Broad while city leaders used eminent domain to seize properties and demolish almost 1,800 single-family homes.
Developers ultimately leveled 254 acres, an area three-fourths the size of Downtown, to put up three 20-story housing buildings circled by a four-lane, one-way road they dubbed Penn Circle.
The pedestrian mall project was Pittsburgh’s largest urban renewal effort to date.
Justin Greenawalt, 30, a member of the East Liberty Valley Historical Society who studied the project, said Penn Circle was meant to be a European-style plaza.
“People became disoriented. They had no idea where they were going and how to get around,” Greenawalt said.
The project was eventually deemed a total failure. And that pedestrian plaza? It didn’t work.
“People (had gotten) very accustomed to basically driving up to the store they wanted to go to, parking in front, running inside, getting what they needed (and) moving on,” he said.
But with Penn Circle, shoppers had to maneuver an unfamiliar roundabout-like street grid, find parking far away and work their way through a city-made maze.
Then, “get back on what was essentially, in the middle of the city, a four-lane freeway,” Greenawalt said.
Shoppers started avoiding East Liberty, and eventually, prospective residents did, too.
George Clark, now 69, lived near the area when buildings started coming down. Penn Avenue above Highland going toward Negley was among the worst, he said.
Clark said it “looked like Berlin, 1945.”
“Blocks and blocks had been leveled," he said. "It was devastating. I think it devastated everyone that lived in the area. Small businesses got pushed out, people got moved out of there that didn’t want to move out of there. They had no choice.”
During the height of urban renewal, two East Liberty churches were destroyed by fire. Police blamed arsonists.
DeMarzi remembers seeing the blaze from her backyard.
“Dad and I stood out back and we watched it for most of the night burn,” she said.
Rodman Street Baptist Church rebuilt, but the building hadn’t been properly insured and half of the congregation never returned. Arson, Greenawalt said, added to the perception of an unsafe neighborhood.
“Suddenly there’s this unrest and no one knows what’s going on. And a lot of people said just stay away,” he said. “Stay away.”
By 1979, 83 percent of local business owners had boarded their doors, from 575 shops in 1959 to just 98 two decades later. The neighborhood was in rapid decline.
As middle-class families fled, the neighborhood grew poorer, and by the 90s, crime was soaring.
The city largely ignored the neighborhood for a few decades, Clark said, and middle-class earners didn’t come back.
“And they didn’t really build housing for them either,” he said. “(The emphasis on low-income housing) made East Liberty more segregated in a way. It was much more homogeneous before.”
The gas station at Mellon’s Orchard didn’t last long. Since then, it’s been mostly unused.
Forgetting the problem
During the Urban Renewal Project, the city changed the name of DeMarzi’s street. In 2014, they changed it again. City leaders said at the time they wanted to distance from the new effort from a project that deteriorated a once-thriving business district.
Over time, the pedestrian mall opened to vehicle traffic and the high rises in the commercial core were imploded in 2005. Young people and developers started buying up cheap properties in East Liberty and restoring them. As the money flowed in, so did outside attention.
Target opened in 2011, and small businesses and upscale restaurants are returning. The city dropped the Penn Circle street names two years ago just as the Urban Redevelopment Authority acquired Mellon’s Orchard parking lot.
On Mondays, vendors peddle fresh eggs and produce there to young professionals and seniors. It’s the kind of scene that gives gentrification a good name.
Neighborhood residents who lived through the hard times, though, are conflicted about the change.
“I still see a lot I love about it, but I’m worried every day,” said Randall Taylor, 50.
Taylor was a long-time renter at Penn Plaza, a 300-unit apartment complex slated for demolition last summer. Tenants like Taylor had to go.
Today, huge mounds of twisted steel and broken glass lie where one building stood, and a Whole Foods grocery is expected to open in its place.
All that change has put extra pressure on Mellon’s Orchard. The URA is working with Trek Development to turn the lot into a 104-unit apartment and commercial use complex. The designs show pixelated families gathered outside sleek apartments with large windows.
URA Chairman Kevin Acklin, 40, guarantees half the units will be earmarked for affordable housing.
“We’re not asking; we’re telling. This is a demand we’ve put on the table,” he said.
Acklin said the city hopes to break ground by 2018 and that Penn Plaza evictees like Taylor will have first dibs on future apartments. Taylor is still living in the neighborhood, but said he might have to move again soon.
“It doesn’t become a point of if you want to or not, you know? It’s where can you live at that you can afford,” he said.
Acklin argues urban development has radically changed since the 1960s. Instead of demolition, the mission is restoration. Instead of big ideas, they want more small businesses owned and operated by locals who care about the neighborhood’s future.
“So I think we’re being very thoughtful as to the type of development that comes to neighborhoods like East Liberty to make sure there isn’t displacement, that the residents there have a chance to continue to live in their neighborhood (and) allow for additional investment and growth,” he said.
Some long-time residents like Taylor say the development, with half affordable units, is just a drop in the bucket. Taylor and many other former Penn Plaza tenants continue to fight for more affordable housing, marching the streets of downtown Pittsburgh calling for more affordable property.
Because they remember what happened. So does Clark.
“Really what’s happening right now is a smaller version of what happened in the 60’s," he said. "They’re coming in, they’re building all this new stuff, they’re wiping things off that didn’t get wiped off before.”