“Penn Plaza Lives”: Displaced Residents Fight For Affordable Housing in Pittsburgh

Displaced residents & housing rights activists call for a plan that includes affordable housing at the former Penn Plaza site during a March 19 press conference. Photo courtesy Aaron Regal

On March 31, 2017, the last residents were evicted from Penn Plaza. The affordable housing complex was demolished three months later. But the story is far from over for former tenants, as they demonstrated at a public meeting on LG Realty’s plans to redevelop the site.

Hours before the March 21st public meeting started, people were unsure whether it was still happening. A snow day had closed schools and businesses throughout Pittsburgh, including Eastminster Presbyterian Church, which was hosting the meeting.

The snow and the confusion, plus a lack of publicity from the city, didn’t bode well for attendance. But despite everything, over 200 former residents and housing rights activists filled the room by 6pm, chanting “no plan about us, without us.”

They’re angry that LG Realty tore down affordable housing to replace it with luxury development. They’re sick of closed door negotiations between LG Realty and the City of Pittsburgh. Most of all, they just want to be able to move back to East Liberty. It’s where their family and friends are, it’s where their doctors are, and it has access to public transportation and grocery shopping.

LG Realty has been trying for years to replace affordable housing at the site with something more profitable. Every step of the way, angry residents and concerned citizens have worked with the city to stop that from happening.

In February, LG submitted its latest plans for the site to the City Planning Commission. The city needs to hold two public meetings on this revised amended preliminary land development plan (RAPLDP) before the planning commission can vote on it.

March 21st was the first of these two public meetings.

“This is the wrong plan.”

77-year-old Myrtle Stern was evicted from Auburn Towers in Larimer before its demolition in 2008. Then she moved to Penn Plaza, where she lived for 15 years — only to be evicted again. Now, she lives in Verona, which is an hour away from East Liberty by public transit.

Some other residents moved to Mellon’s Orchard in East Liberty when they were evicted from Penn Plaza. That building is also slated for demolition.

Each time Stern had to move, she said at the meeting, she was promised she would be able to return. City planners and developers have yet to fulfill that promise.

Carl Redwood, an activist with the Hill District Consensus group, says this is a common pattern. “We still have residents of Aliquippa who were promised they could come back after being displaced — and they still haven’t been able to come back,” he said. “It’s happened in the Hill District, St. Claire, Arlington, and East Liberty.”

In his testimony, Redwood went on to argue that “this is the wrong plan.” Instead of talking about a plan for luxury development on the site, he said, “we should be discussing a plan on how to bring the residents back to this neighborhood who were promised they could come back.”

Luke, a Friendship resident and small business owner, agreed.

“When you build a bridge on a highway, you build that new bridge so traffic can flow through it. Then you take down the old bridge,” Luke said. “Just like when you displace residents, you build the new building first,” so they have somewhere to live when the old units are torn down.

“Affordable for who?”

Late last year, after months of litigation, Mayor Peduto’s office announced a consent agreement between LG Realty, the City of Pittsburgh Planning Commission, and four intervenors. This document settled multiple lawsuits surrounding Penn Plaza.

In it, LG agreed to set up an affordable housing fund. Since Penn Plaza is in a Transit Revitalization Investment District, the owners receive tax breaks for developing the property. LG will commit about $2–5 million — just under half of its tax breaks — to the East End Housing Regeneration Account. This money will, in turn, go toward building affordable housing within one mile of the Penn Plaza site.

But speakers at the March 21 meeting wanted to know: “Affordable for who?”

Image by CREATE Lab/CMU via PennPlaza.org

According to Jessica McPherson, a member of Penn Plaza Support and Action, the fund will help finance housing for renters who make 60–80% of the area median income. In contrast, Penn Plaza’s residents only made about 47% AMI, according to data from the 2015 American Community Survey.

To put it in more concrete terms: One-bedroom apartments built with money from the fund could cost between $817 and $1090 a month, according to PPSA’s website. The rate for one-bedroom apartments at Penn Plaza, meanwhile, was about $680 a month, according to City Paper.

Furthermore, a 2016 report from Pittsburgh’s Affordable Housing Task Force found a citywide shortage of over 17,000 “affordable and available rental units in Pittsburgh for households at or below 50% of Pittsburgh median household income.”

“What’s affordable to you is not affordable to me,” one concerned citizen said at the meeting. “If you’ve lost the fight for 15, you can’t afford 80% AMI housing.”

“What are you building?”

However, as mentioned above, this meeting wasn’t about a plan for affordable housing. It was about LG’s RAPLDP. But what does LG actually plan to add to the site?

Originally, the real estate company planned to build retail storefronts, market-rate apartments, and a parking garage at the site. Whole Foods was to be its anchor retail tenant, despite already having a location less than a mile away. But the City Planning Commission rejected the original development plan in January 2017. And two months later, Whole Foods pulled out of the plans amid protests.

Now, it’s unclear what LG plans on using the buildings for. As company representatives sped through the pages of the RAPLDP on March 21, they talked a lot about the shapes of the structures they plan to develop. However, they notably failed to mention what they plan on using those buildings for, as community activist Carmen Brown noted.

“What are you building?” she asked LG at the meeting. “[The plan] shows building shapes, but what’s going inside them?”

The plan itself is vague on this point. On one hand, it mentions that the development is configured for “world class retail and Class ‘A’ signature office space.” But on the other hand, it also lists over 30 uses that would be permitted on the site.

What the audience really wanted to know was whether LG still planned on putting apartments in the building. Finally, near the end of the meeting, LG attorney Jonathan Kamin admitted that “there is no housing planned for the site.” The audience responded to this statement with a chorus of boos.

Luke, who earlier compared the plan to tearing down a bridge on a highway, said he doesn’t understand who the plan is for. As a small business owner who works in tech, he’s looked at renting offices in East Liberty. “There is no shortage of office space,” he said. “I don’t know who’s going to fill those spaces.”

Penn Plaza before & after being torn down. Photos courtesy Aaron Regal

“Penn Plaza Lives.”

One thing’s for sure: residents and activists aren’t ready to give up the fight.

“Springtime is here, and it will soon be time to shut things down,” said former Penn Plaza tenant Randall Taylor at the beginning of the meeting. As the weather heats up, Penn Plaza Support and Action is prepared to heat up its protests against the redlining and displacement that, according to Redwood, has led to Pittsburgh losing 25% of its black population since 1980.

In addition to appealing to the planning commission to reject LG’s development plan, PPSA is also taking the fight straight to Mayor Peduto. It recently launched a letter-writing campaign asking Peduto to “stand up for housing justice at Penn Plaza and in neighborhoods throughout the city.”

The group has outlined three solutions that would help bring Penn Plaza’s residents back to East Liberty and minimize future affordable housing crises.

First, it wants the City of Pittsburgh to buy Penn Plaza through eminent domain and put affordable housing back on the site. Second, it wants the city’s “public process” to include those residents who are most affected — Penn Plaza residents were never invited to the table in any discussion surrounding the loss of their homes. And third, it wants Mayor Peduto to enact legislation to ensure the future protection of vulnerable residents.

The second and final public meeting on LG’s RAPLDP will take place April 16th from 6–8 p.m. at Eastminster Presbyterian Church. PPSA is holding a rally outside the church 15 minutes before the meeting starts, to remind LG and the City of Pittsburgh: Penn Plaza lives.