February 6, 2017
By Jacqueline Souza
On January 10, 2017, members of the Pittsburgh Planning Commission met with architects and attorneys of LG Realty to discuss the construction of new complexes in East Liberty. If the meeting’s 4th agenda item were to be passed by committee members, it would allow architects to minimize the size of a local park in order to make space for multiple apartment buildings and a Whole Foods Market.
The plans for these new additions were highly controversial in their beginning stages, as the architects and planners responsible faced months of backlash from the public. Members of the community were concerned with their lack of influence in the construction process, as there had been only a few meetings to voice their concerns.
Before the meeting began, a media handout distributed to the press included a statement by Tim Stevens, the CEO-chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project (B-PEP), that “[citizens are] questioning the proposed loss of much of the park, and [are] extremely concerned about the absence of any affordable housing on the site.” Spokespeople for B-PEP argued that LG Realty’s construction plans indicated a rejection of the immediate housing needs of community members, who often find themselves unable to enjoy new amenities due to their cost.
Stevens closed his letter with a potent message, writing that “a giant such as Whole Foods does not need the protection…of the Commission, but many poor and moderate income citizens of Pittsburgh do.”
Following the extensive review and discussion of item four, members of the City Planning Commission swiftly denied LG Realty’s proposed plans due to poor planning and a lack of input from the public. This was an anticipated win for locals and activists in East Liberty, but what effect do these minor victories have on city-wide gentrification as a whole?
Many of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods are gentrified in a predictable manner- major retailers and housing complexes are constructed in a given area where long-term community members are already struggling to keep up with the cost of living, which routinely increases due to new construction. Gentrification may lead to aesthetic and economic improvements; however, these renovations are never for the residents who presently reside there, but for incoming, more affluent residents. Garfield, only a mile and half from East Liberty, faces these same issues presently. Residents struggle to find affordable housing in the neighborhood and lack representation in the community meetings where new construction opportunities are discussed.
I conducted an interview with Corey Buckner, a member of the Outreach Committee for the Land Trust in Garfield. As a native of the area and longtime board member of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, Buckner has witnessed changes in the area throughout the years. After seeing the negative effects of gentrification first hand, he hopes to balance the affordability and the market rate of the neighborhood.
Concerning the current trajectory of Garfield, Buckner worries that new construction is happening too quickly with little input from long-term residents. He then spoke about the goals of the Land Trust’s Outreach Committee, mentioning that their main priority is to increase the diversity of their regular community meetings. Buckner hopes to achieve this by reaching out to long-term Garfield residents, including African-American and elderly citizens, by hosting meetings after local church services and even making home visits, so that citizens who cannot attend the meetings can be heard.
Fortunately, Buckner has noticed more diversity in the community meetings lately, noting the constructive feedback members of the Land Trust had received at the most recent discussion. He mentioned that one of the main goals of the community is to bring education back into Garfield. “[Members of the community],” he said, “would like to see a school, because all of our students are bussed out of Garfield [since] there are no schools left.”
Jacqueline Souza is an intern for the New People and also studies sociology and journalism at the University of Pittsburgh. She is interested in racial justice, social movements, and U.S. politics.