Whole Foods Market plans to open a new store two blocks from its Centre Avenue building.
Its chosen location is the site of East Liberty’s Penn Plaza apartments, a large affordable housing complex that's in the process of being demolished. The building’s owner drew vocal opposition from the community and local lawmakers last year after deciding to evict tenants in favor of redevelopment.
At 50,000 square feet, the new Whole Foods would be double the size of its current location and offer more parking. A Whole Foods spokeswoman told the Post-Gazette that it is unlikely the company would keep two stores within blocks of each other.
East Liberty and the East End of Pittsburgh has seen a boom in property values in recent years. That coupled with fears of gentrification and rising housing prices, elicited strong reactions from social media users over the news that Whole Foods would move into the controversial site.
Joy KMT, a local artist and organizer of a movement to boycott the new Whole Foods store, said its construction in place of the Penn Plaza housing units is a travesty.
"Especially when we face a housing crisis in Pittsburgh of 21,000 families that are housing insecure or homeless," she said
But Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s Chief of Staff Kevin Acklin said there must be a balance between economic growth and affordable housing.
“There’s no doubt that you have market rate investment happening in the neighborhood,” he said. “The key, though, is to make sure we’re making parallel balanced investments in affordable housing, to maintain these as mixed income communities that people who want to continue to live in East Liberty have an opportunity to do so.”
The 312-unit Penn Plaza complex owner LG Realty Advisors faced some backlash last summer after announcing the site's redevelopment and gave tenants a 90-day window to move out. Later, the developer agreed to a stay of eviction and an extended timeline to allow the city and nonprofits to help residents find new housing.
“This is not over,” said Acklin. “We are working very closely with the residents regarding future development that will occur next door … and make sure they’re afforded the same kind of protections that we had negotiated back next year for residents of building one.”
LG Realty lawyer John Kamin said the company has made a commitment of more than $10 million in seed money for an affordable housing fund.
"I'm not sure why there's any particular issue in this case because I think we've gone above and beyond to meet everybody's needs," Kamin said.
Currently a group of residents still live in one Penn Plaza building and will move out next year. Residents of the other building moved out in February.
Construction on the new Whole Foods is expected to break ground next year.