Keeping an Eye on Penn Plaza: June 2022

Seven years after the initial eviction notices went to the low-income residents of the former Penn Plaza Apartments, the mixed-use redevelopment of the size nears completion of Phase 1.

The former Penn Plaza Apartments was a group of large of apartments buildings that served a low-income population. After years of neglecting these apartments, the owner gave 200 residents notice to vacate within 90 days in the summer of 2015. By then, the surrounding neighborhood of East Liberty was a hopping place to live with low vacancy rates and the average rent much higher than what these residents could afford. There was a large outcry at the time, which only got worse as the owner’s plans for the site were understood. The owner wanted to swap some land with the City and change the zoning district to build a large scale mixed-use development: 54,600 sq ft of retail and 246,090 sq ft of office with accessory parking (see the application materials starting on page 54 from the final Planning Commission review and approval). After months of negotiation with the City and the community, the land and the zone change were given to the development while the affordable housing crisis in Pittsburgh only got worse and the former residents were forced to uproot their lives.

The Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition has more information on what was promised and what happened as the residents were forced to find new housing.

Penn Plaza in the News

While the construction of Phase 1 of the new development appears to be nearing completion, I did not find any news items specifically about the site. News about affordable housing issues in Pittsburgh continue.

Public Source articles discuss:

New affordable housing units opened and another project broke ground in October 2021 (Tribune Review).

A brief from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia on the homeownership gap in that city including findings applicable to Pittsburgh and other cities (East Liberty Development Inc, January 4, 2022).

Previous Posts in the Series

Keeping an Eye on Penn Plaza – Apr. 2021

Keeping an Eye on Penn Plaza – Nov. 2020

Keeping an Eye on Penn Plaza – Aug. 2020

Oakland Bridges: The Hollows

Oakland is a cluster of Pittsburgh neighborhoods east of downtown. It has the highest concentration of institutions and cultural amenities in the city. It is home to Carlow College, the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), multiple UPMC hospitals, the Phipps Conservatory (Phipps), Schenley Park (the second largest city park), and the Carnegie Institute complex (housing the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, the main Carnegie Library, and the Carnegie Music Hall). Most of these as well as much of the commercial and residential parts of Oakland were built on a shelf. The hospitals, part of Pitt, and some houses climb the slope toward the Hill District. Some houses also spill over the edge of the shelf, down into the hollows.

Several bridges span the Junction and Panther hollows in Oakland. The Forbes Avenue bridge connects CMU to the Carnegie Institute complex and one of the commercial districts. The Schenley Bridge connects Pitt and the Carnegie Institute complex to the Phipps and Schenley Park. The Panther Hollow Bridge spans a second hollow to connect the Phipps with the rest of Schenley Park. The Charles Anderson Memorial Bridge carries the Blvd of the Allies over Junction Hollow. A fifth bridge without pedestrian access carries 376 over the hollow. This bridge can be partially glimpsed from the Anderson Bridge, but its presence can be clearly marked by the traffic’s rushing whoosh that carries up the hollow.

By the Forbes Ave and Schenley bridges, Junction Hollow has an industrial feel. The railroad is mostly exposed at these points (further down it is surrounded by trees, shrubs, and other overgrowth). There are also several parking lots and CMU houses some of its facilities functions along the hollow. By the Schenley Bridge, a massive electrical substation was recently constructed across from the historic (and active) steam factory.

The Panther Hollow Bridge provides a completely different feel as its hollow is 100% park. It is the only one of these bridges that does not cross over the railroad and is therefore the only one without a cage. A small lake with walking trail is visible on one side (with the railroad beyond a row of weeds). The other side overlooks a forested hillside and valley floor. Hawks and/or falcons can often be seen gliding over this hollow.

The Anderson Bridge overlooks Junction Hollow at its most parklike point, but it has a less peaceful feel than the Panther Bridge. A combination of the almost-highway Blvd of the Allies, the bridge’s height above the hollow, and its pedestrian fence make the bridge feel isolated from nature when walking across.

Keeping an Eye on Hazelwood Slope: Sep. 2021


Hazelwood is a neighborhood about 4 miles down the Monongahela River from downtown Pittsburgh. It is currently experiencing significant change, at least in the Hazelwood Green portion. The area that I’m designating as Hazelwood Slope is everything outside Hazelwood Green and the small residential enclave between the tracks and the river that I call Hazelwood Flats. The Hazelwood Slope contains the neighborhood’s commercial corridor, cultural and historical sites, and the majority of the neighborhoods’ residences.

What’s New

After my September 2020 check-in on Hazelwood, it seemed that changes in Hazelwood were happening at a slower pace than the other sites I’m keeping an eye on. So I decided to switch from a 6-month interval to a 12-month interval between visits. A few months ago, I saw construction vehicles and other signs of activity while driving down Second Ave through Hazelwood. I thought perhaps I was missing out on some activity. However, when I walked through the neighborhood this month, I couldn’t find any signs of recent demolition or recent construction.

An exciting project that is projected to start soon is the conversion of the former Gladstone School to affordable housing. There were subtle signs of site prep when I walked by this month. Construction is expected to start before the end of the year with an anticipated completion date in 2023.

The Photos

Second Ave
Hazelwood Ave & Other Sites

Hazelwood in the News

Funding from Bridgeway Capital, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and the Pennsylvania Housing Financing Agency has been awarded for affordable housing projects in Hazelwood. Center of Life, a local non-profit, also received a major donation to support its mission of helping underserved K-12 students and their families in the neighborhood.

Inspired by the popular Friday fish fries in Pittsburgh, Hazelwood’s Community Kitchen launched a Friday BBQ series this year.

Locating Hazelwood Slope

Previous posts in series

Keeping an Eye on Hazelwood (across the tracks): Sept. 2020

Keeping an Eye on Hazelwood (across the tracks): Apr. 2020

Keeping an Eye on Hazelwood: Introduction

Keeping an Eye on Penn Plaza – Apr. 2021

“@#$%&!” slipped out of my mouth when I was several blocks away from the former Penn Plaza site and I saw a hulking behemoth of a building looming high above the surrounding neighborhood. In it’s current state, the new development appears to be as tall as the Daniel Burnham apartment building on Highland Ave opposite East Liberty Presbyterian Church, which is much taller than any other structure remaining in the neighborhood besides the church. While I had seen the early drawings of the proposed development when I worked at the City, I was bowled over by seeing the actual size and how it has no relation to the surrounding neighborhood.

This has promoted me to look back at the process of how this project got approval from the city. What I have found so far has only prompted more questions. When a developer proposes a project that is in compliance with the zoning code regulations, there is not much the city can do besides ask “pretty please.” I had assumed that was what the story was here, but so far I don’t see how this project was in compliance with the zoning requirements. I’ll continue digging through the past records to try and wrap my head around the zoning approval for this project. In the meantime, below are photos of the current building progress and some news articles about the development since my last post.

Penn Plaza in the News

In a November 23, 2020, article WESA explores what the Mayor’s Office really knew before the eviction notices. WESA also produced a podcast on Land & Power to explore what happened and how in this East Liberty site.

Former Penn Plaza Residents are being given an opportunity to return to the neighborhood in the new Mellon Orchard Development as reported by ELDI (December 15, 2020) and the Post-Gazette (February 17, 2021).

Previous Posts in the Series

Keeping an Eye on Penn Plaza – Nov. 2020

Keeping an Eye on Penn Plaza – Aug. 2020

Keeping an Eye on Hazelwood (across the tracks): Sept. 2020

Hazelwood is a neighborhood divided in two by railroad tracks. On one side of the tracks are Hazelwood Green, a residential enclave, and some industrial and commercial uses. This is what is across the tracks:

Second Ave

Hazelwood Ave

Other Sites

Hazelwood in the News:

New Businesses Revitalizing Second Ave (Next Pittsburgh, November 21, 2019)

URA Picks Community Builders for Affordable Housing Development on Second Ave (Pittsburgh Business Times, January 15, 2020)

Study Pushes Multi-modal Transit Improvements to Hazelwood’s 2nd Avenue (Post-Gazette, February 10, 2020)

Report Says Traditional Buses Better for Hazelwood than Autonomous Shuttles (City Paper, April 21, 2020)

Restaurants Reopen – Diners Return (Post-Gazette, June 28, 2020)

66 New Homes Proposed (Pittsburgh Business Times, September 10, 2020)

Previous posts in series:

Keeping an Eye on Hazelwood (across the tracks): Apr. 2020

Keeping an Eye on Hazelwood: Introduction

Keeping an Eye on Penn Plaza – Aug. 2020

I regret not starting this series on the former Penn Plaza site sooner. I missed opportunities to photograph the former apartments in their neglected, partially occupied state and the demolition of the buildings. Starting with the project several months into construction is a case of better late than never and provides an opportunity to watch how the promise to rebuild the neighborhood park becomes fulfilled.

Penn Plaza in the News

Evictions 2015-2019:

Evictions Highlight Lack of Affordable Housing (City Paper, July 22, 2015)

Residents Meet About Eviction Notices (New Pittsburgh Courier, July 23, 2015)

Evictions Set Standard for Future (WESA, February 29, 2016)

Owners and Displaced Tenants Work out Deal (WTAE, February 29, 2016)

Final Residents Move Out (WESA, March 31, 2017)

Mass Evictions (Downstream, February 15, 2018)

Protesters Call for Action Years After Evictions (KDKA, July 28, 2018)

Dark Stain on the City (Pittsburgh Current, July 30, 2018)

Defining Community (Public Source, September 27, 2019)

Negotiations 2017-2019:

Penn Plaza Support and Action Blog

City, Community, Developer Reach Agreement (WESA, October 27, 2017)

Final Go-Ahead Approved (Post-Gazette, February 12, 2019)

City Seeks Land Swap (WESA, October 4, 2019)

Controversy Continues with Land Swap Proposal (Tribune Review, October 15, 2019)

City Fails to Keep Promises (WESA, October 23, 2019)

City Falling Short on Guarantees (Post-Gazette, October 28, 2019)

Residents Concerned About Park Reconfiguration (Tribune Review, October 28, 2019)

Construction 2019-current:

City Council Clears the Way (WESA, October 29, 2019)

Construction Starts (Pittsburgh Business Times, October 30, 2019)

Groundbreaking Announced for December 2019 (Next Pittsburgh, October 30, 2019)

Keeping an Eye on Hazelwood: May 2020

Hazelwood is a neighborhood divided in two by railroad tracks. On one side of the tracks are Hazelwood Green, a residential enclave, and some industrial and commercial uses. Here is a snapshot of the residential enclave and surrounding uses:

Hazelwood in the News:

Post-Gazette Article on proposed new road between Hazelwood and Oakland April 10, 2020

Keeping an Eye on Hazelwood (across the tracks): Apr. 2020

Hazelwood is a neighborhood divided in two by railroad tracks. On one side of the tracks are Hazelwood Green, a residential enclave, and some industrial and commercial uses. This is what is across the tracks:

Second Ave

Hazelwood Ave

Other Sites:

Inclusionary Wealth

Amid writing my posts about how the wealth gap manifests itself in the built environment and the morality of unequal economic investment in cities, I took another trip to Chicago. I spent most of my stay in the downtown areas within a mile of Grant Park. I love the old stone buildings, established green parks, ornate fountains, and modern glass skyscrapers with interesting architectural embellishments. Yet this trip, I felt hypocritical as I walked around soaking it all in. All these elements that I enjoy are the result of significant financial outlay that I know is not evenly distributed throughout the city. So where was my moral indignation at this display of deeply entrenched wealth unequally spread?

Chicago’s display of wealth isn’t gaudy like Tijuana or Las Vegas. The message I absorb in places like those with their flashing lights is “come on in, so we can suck all the money out of your pockets.” Chicago businesses identified their presence on the street with regular signs leaving it up to the passers to decide whether to engage.

One bar did add a layer of enticement to their sidewalk advertising. I was searching for a place for dinner, with this bar in mind as the one that looked most appealing from Google maps. I was looking around to see if there were any other better options. The smell of the burgers from this first bar convinced me that it was the best option in that vicinity. It was only after I had sat down and ordered that I realized the smell wasn’t coming from the open window, but rather it came from pipes pumping the kitchen smells to the sidewalk. Still it was a subtle inducement and unlike flashing lights it did not have a nefarious undertone.

By pumping out the smell to the sidewalk, it also felt indiscriminate. Anyone passing was invited to enjoy. This was unlike my experience in Cardiff where if I couldn’t afford the items in the business, I felt I shouldn’t be walking past in the public space. I never felt like I didn’t belong in Chicago. There were economic barriers to certain experiences, but those places that I encountered still did not feel exclusionary. One example is the lounge on the 96th floor of Chicago’s Hancock Building. The stunning views are only accessible to those who can afford a $17 cocktail, but those who can afford one only once in a blue moon were just as welcome as those who can afford one or more every night.

In Chicago, I never saw that strong line, as in Tijuana and Cardiff, that divided those with and those without financial resources.  Everywhere I went, there was a mix of people with different economic statuses, skin colors, and first languages. This diversity gave me the feeling that anyone is welcome to enjoy the well-maintained investment in public spaces with or without hitting a minimum financial threshold.