Then & Now: East Liberty Station Bridge(s)

Just beyond the South Highland Bridge from the East Liberty Pedestrian bridge is the busway’s East Liberty Station. When I moved to Pittsburgh over a decade ago, there were two pedestrian bridges over the busway and train tracks – one at either end of the station – and a ramp providing buses on Penn Avenue access to the busway. Across the tracks from the busway was a one-story, graffiti-covered warehouse, a parking lot, and a drive-through bank. Along Penn Avenue and connected by the ramp to the busway was a major bus stop on its own governor’s drive.

All of this was replaced in 2014-2015 with a transit-oriented development. The two boxed-in (a step beyond caged) pedestrian bridges were demolished and replaced by a new open bridge (first photo pair below) and a crosswalk on the busway. The bus ramp was renovated into an accessible pedestrian ramp (seen in the east view, second photo pair). Plantings were introduced on both the bridge and the ramp, changing this portion of the vast paved, treeless area into a desert oasis. It is still a hot and uncomfortable place to be in the summer months, but at least now there are black-eyed Susans to bring cheer.

The warehouse, parking lot, drive-through bank, and Penn Avenue bus stop were replaced with a massive mixed-use complex called EastSide Bond (glimpsed on the right in the final pair of photos, also visible in the South Highland Avenue Bridge Then & Now post). The new development features 360 residential units, 43,000 sq ft of retail (most of which is occupied, except for the promised anchor tenant), 554 parking spaces in a garage under the buildings, and a 120-space bike parking garage (which I’ve only ever seen a handful of bikes in, probably because Penn Avenue is not a bike-friendly thoroughfare).

Similar to the older, new developments near the East Liberty Pedestrian Bridge, this site and its uses cater to a White and moneyed demographic. However, in 2010, East Liberty had a population that was 67% Black (down from 72.5% a decade prior) and the median income was $23,000. This means the site is catering to an audience that currently makes up a minority of the neighborhood. Perhaps that is why whenever I pass by or stop at one of the retail locations at EastSide Bond, I feel like it has a luke-warm success. In contrast, the Target across the street is heavily trafficked as is the busway station – both are used by the current population.

Once upon a time, Black residents were pushed to East Liberty through Urban Renewal and the demolition of their previous lives. Now, we may be witnessing the pushing out of Black residents through redevelopment and the demolition of their current lives. The current proposed redevelopment of the shopping center south of the East Liberty Station promises to bring the grocery store back and to include 35 affordable units out of 232. There is no mention of whether any of the other smaller retail stores that catered to the current population will be returning. I also wonder if the grocery store will still carry beauty products for darker skin tones when it reopens. Down the street, the redevelopment of the former affordable and predominantly Black Penn Plaza apartments is the latest project that is definitely catering to people who are not the majority residents of the neighborhood, after permitting affordable housing units to deteriorate through neglect before demolishing them.

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 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)