An artist's conception of a proposed apartment building that would be constructed next to, and above, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater (right), as presented to the City Planning Commission on Jan. 25, 2022.
An artist's conception of a proposed apartment building that would be constructed next to, and above, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater (right), as presented to the City Planning Commission on Jan. 25, 2022.

A developer’s plan to build apartments beside and above East Liberty’s landmark Kelly Strayhorn Theater drew heated opposition from artists, activists and neighborhood residents at a hearing of the City Planning Commission, which opted to postpone its vote pending further discussions.

McKnight Realty Partners owns the Penn Avenue parcel which includes the theater and three other buildings. It wants to demolish a one-story building and construct a six-floor structure with retail space on the first floor and 38 apartments — including four affordable to low-income households — above.

The new building would cantilever above the Kelly Strayhorn. The developer’s team pledged that the theater’s operations would not be affected during or after construction. City Councilman Ricky Burgess and a neighborhood group called the Village Collaborative of East Liberty weighed in to support the proposal.

The commission, though, heard testimony in opposition from 25 people, most of whom urged that the developer first do a better job of communicating with the diversity-focused theater’s board and staff, and perhaps extend its lease which expires in 2029.

An artist's rendering of the retail-and-apartment building which McKnight Realty Partners has proposed for an East Liberty parcel.

With just seven years left on its lease with McKnight, the theater has “no leverage to raise funds for a building that is in need of repairs,” said Adam Golden, vice chair of the board of the Kelly Strayhorn. He characterized McKnight’s communications to the theater’s management as “sometimes dictatorial,” and urged that they work toward “a partner-like relationship.”

Singers, dancers and other artists joined the virtual hearing to voice support for the theater.

“I will never stop hoping that big developers will work with community leaders to build into communities rather than over them,” said Anna Hale, a musician who performs under the moniker Swampwalk. “Let’s collaborate, and honestly, let’s care about the community.”

The perception that the plan could threaten the theater spurred numerous speakers to harken back to controversial changes to the neighborhood, from the 1960s creation of Penn Circle to recent gentrification including the 2018 displacement of Penn Plaza’s former low-income residents.

“There are so few spaces in East Liberty that remain for Black people,” said La’Tasha D. Mayes, president and CEO of New Voices for Reproductive Justice, located near the theater. “It’s the presence of Black and queer folks in East Liberty that makes it vibrant.”

“This is really about people being able to see themselves in their communities and to make sure that they can see themselves in the future,” said Bekezela Mguni, another speaker in support of the theater.

Attorney Bill Sittig, representing McKnight, said the theater has actually been “the focal point” of the design for the project. He asked the commission not to insist on a lease extension for the theater as a condition for approving the project, saying that would be premature until the theater works out a long-term financial plan.

Commission Chair Christine Mondor said she does not believe the panel has the power to insist on a lease extension for a tenant as a condition for the approval of a proposal.

She added, though, that the commission can demand more information on the compatibility of the various uses on a site, seek assurances regarding the working relationship between a developer and tenant and ask questions about the preservation of a community asset.

She and other commissioners asked the developer and the theater’s management to communicate in advance of a commission vote, which could occur as early as Feb. 8.

Uptown property’s historic status considered

The commission also received its initial briefing on the historic designation nomination of two properties in the city’s Uptown area.

A 138-year-old house at 1817 Fifth Avenue and a garage behind it at 1818 Colwell Street served, starting around 1935, as Pittsburgh’s first distributorship for Rolling Rock Beer, the commission learned from Sarah Quinn, the city’s historic preservation planner. The beer has long been brewed in Latrobe, and Quinn said of it: “I think we can all agree that it’s near and dear to our hearts.”

The house was the home of the Tito family, Quinn said. “The Tito brothers found themselves during Prohibition making alcohol for illegal sale. They were also involved in hijacking, supposedly hijacking of liquor, and things of that nature,” Quinn told the commission.

Commission Chair Christine Mondor noted that the house’s past residents also had ties to the city’s Black baseball institutions.

Quinn said the properties have been nominated for historic designation by the community group Uptown Partners of Pittsburgh. The owners of the properties oppose the nomination, she said, adding that she believed developers were considering the construction of condominiums on the block, which could entail demolition of the house.

Uptown Partners did not participate in the briefing. Afterward, the community organization’s Executive Director Brittany McDonald wrote in the Zoom question-and-answer function that Quinn’s presentation was “inept,” displaying a “lack of professionalism and overt bias.” There was no immediate response from Quinn or the commission.

The nomination is expected to come before the Historic Review Commission for a hearing and vote on Feb. 2. The City Planning Commission is to hold its hearing and vote on Feb. 8. If those panels approve the nomination, it goes to Pittsburgh City Council for a binding vote.

If the buildings are designated as historic, then demolition or other exterior changes would have to be approved by the Historic Review Commission.

Would anyone miss the East Liberty CVS?

Bank JP Morgan Chase wants to tear down the empty CVS Pharmacy building on Penn Avenue in East Liberty and replace it with a bank branch, the commission learned in another briefing.

The proposed 3,300-square-foot bank would be smaller than the pharmacy, leaving room for 11 parking spaces in back and a landscaped area where Centre Avenue and Sheridan Square meet.

In October, the commission rejected a Citizens Bank bid to demolish an adjacent, half-century-old bank branch building and build a new location at Penn and Centre. That rejection was driven by concern at the potential loss of a distinctive former Mellon Bank branch. No such concerns emerged in regard to Chase’s plan.

An artist's rendering of a proposed Chase Bank branch which would be built on the site of the empty CVS Pharmacy on Penn Avenue in East Liberty.

“Obviously there is no historic relevance to the CVS and everybody will be happy to see it go,” said Melissa Mayer, an architect working for Chase.

The proposed Chase building would be nearly 25 feet tall, but the second floor would serve only as an attic. It could have a mural or other artistic treatment on one otherwise blank wall, the design team told the commission.

A public hearing and commission vote are expected on Feb. 8.

Correction: Pittsburgh's historic preservation planner is Sarah Quinn. She was misidentified in the original version of this article.

Rich Lord is Rtvsrece’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@rtvsrece.com or on Twitter @richelord.

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Rich is the managing editor of Rtvsrece. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...