It takes a wide range of partners to revitalize a community. From community organizations and residents to business owners and developers, everyone has a role to play in breathing new life into a neighborhood. Over the years, ELDI has worked with many developers to bring new housing and commercial real estate online, providing input on how those developments can best serve the community’s vision outlined in East Liberty’s community plans. One of the developers who has been particularly active in East Liberty is Anthony Dolan of Alphabet City Development.
Alphabet City Development is responsible for the Duolingo building, the 211 Tower (former Medical East building and home to our new offices), and other key East End developments. After more than 29 years of experience in the real estate world, Anthony talks to us about his journey in the industry, the rise and fall of East Liberty’s commercial core that he’s witnessed, and what he thinks East Liberty needs to return to the strong business center it once was.
What first sparked your interest in development and real estate?
When I graduated from college, I found myself literally sorting trash at a recycling center in West Mifflin. As I was sitting there sorting out recyclables, I realized, “Okay, I probably have to re-think what I’m doing here.” I ended up going back to school and got my master’s degree in urban and regional planning. At that point, I knew that I wanted to be in the real estate development world. I grew up in a couple of neighborhoods where houses were being built all around me, and I remember going into them as a young kid, fascinated by the whole process of watching something go from a piece of dirt to an actual house or building. So, I kind of had that interest in building in me, even as a child, but I didn’t have a clear path in my head. That path came as one decision built upon another.
Why did you decide to start Alphabet City Development in 2013?
In the late 90s, I was working for Thrift Drug as a site location consultant when Thrift Drug merged with Eckerd Drugs. The merger presented me with an opportunity to develop Eckerd’s freestanding stores, so I started searching for a business partner, because I had no money. That’s when I met Gregg Perelman and Todd Reidbord.
Gregg, who had a father that was a pharmacist, had just sold his very successful mail-order pharmacy business to CVS and was looking for a new project and Todd Reidbord was his close friend who also had a father that was a pharmacist. My father was a pharmacist too, so, it was a weird aligning of the stars with us. In 1997, myself, Gregg Perelman, and Todd Reidbord created Walnut Capital Partners and started building a lot of these drugstores throughout the Pittsburgh region, Erie, Buffalo, New York and eastern West Virginia. My primary task was to find and identify sites and manage the planning and zoning approvals as well as the construction of these buildings. While I was out building drugstores, Gregg and Todd were in our offices buying apartments in Shadyside and Squirrel Hill. After just a couple of years, there was a clear demarcation between Walnut Capital, the commercial development company, and Walnut Capital, the residential company. Today, those two are still doing a very good job growing both sides of the company, but in 2013, I chose to go off on my own and start Alphabet City Development.
What’s your personal connection to East Liberty?
I have much more of a personal connection to it now than when I was growing up. I grew up in Monroeville. So, ironically, I grew up in the suburb which was probably the prime benefactor of that urban exit out of the city in the 1960s and 70s. When I was growing up in Monroeville in the late 70s, 80s, and 90s, it had a very strong business district. I didn’t really spend a lot of time in the city, but my grandmother lived in East Liberty and my father lived in Point Breeze before I was born. I have very faint recollections of the business district when I was younger, but my first real recollection of the business district was when it was in serious decay, with a lot of blight and not a lot of economic activity. It is somewhat ironic now that this kid from Monroeville is coming in and helping pull back all that business revenue and activity into East Liberty, where it will hopefully grow and stay, for the sake of East Liberty, but also the surrounding neighborhoods and the city itself. Because as East Liberty goes, other neighborhoods go.
What are some of the key projects that you have worked on in East Liberty?
- Bakery Square: My first foray into the East Liberty business district was the first phase of Bakery Square, which we had just finished up when I left Walnut Capital in 2013 (even though technically the original project is in Larimer). We were working on that project as early as 2006, if not even in late 2005.
- Penn Avenue: My second acquisition under my own name was a property across from Target, the little Chinese restaurant that’s no longer there. Then I eventually assembled three additional parcels on Penn Avenue, two of which I purchased from ELDI. That project was my first proper foray into the business district. It was my intention to build a six-story office building, which was fully approved by the City of Pittsburgh. I was then approached by Highwoods, a North Carolina based real estate investment trust, to purchase the land in 2019, and I believe their intention is to build a building significantly similar to the one that we designed and had approved.
- Penn-Highland Building: A project that I worked with ELDI and my former partners at Walnut Capital on is the Penn-Highland building. This building is where the Milkshake Factory, Bonobos, Warby Parker and several other restaurants and retailers are now located. That building is an air rights subdivision, meaning myself and my partners own the first floor of that building and Walnut Capital owns the apartments. It was a rare case where former partners were able to come together to create a new project under our separate entities, and I’m very pleased with how it came out. We have some great tenants, and they did a great job on the apartments. I think that was a critical piece of the puzzle to get East Liberty’s business district back to where it needs to be.
- Duolingo + Baum Boulevard: As I was developing that, I acquired the building where Duolingo now sits, which is probably my most successful venture in East Liberty to date. I also own a couple of smaller buildings on Baum Boulevard, and with a different set of partners, I purchased the block where Bank of America, Xfinity, and Cube now sit.
You also recently purchased and undertook the renovation of the 211 Tower (the former Medical East building). Why did you decide to take that venture on?
A broker representing the previous owner put it in front of me, as he knew that I was investing quite a bit in East Liberty. I felt that the price made sense given what we were buying, which was basically a shell—essentially everything in that building had to be replaced except for the walls. That’s what we spent the first three years of owning it doing, but I felt that it was an interesting piece of Brutalist architecture, which you don’t see a lot of in Pittsburgh. It is a symbol, whether we like it or not of what that 1960s urban redevelopment movement brought to the neighborhood, one of the few things left standing from it. I took it on because it is critical that we have enough office space in the business district for everything to function properly, especially given the size of East Liberty’s business district, as it’s not a neighborhood business district; it’s a regional business district. There was a time when East Liberty’s business district was the third largest in Pennsylvania. That tells you what it was designed to be and what it was: a mini-downtown. My goal, since I made my very first investment in East Liberty, has always been to get it back to that kind of glory. We’ve made a lot of progress towards that goal, but we still have work to do to get us to the finish line, and that takes a commitment from the community, which includes stakeholders like myself, as well as political leadership.
“The beauty of East Liberty is its diversity, and it is also the one thing that can cause a lot of tension or create issues that other neighborhoods never have to deal with. However, for me, that trade-off is a good one, as long as people on all sides are willing to work together.”
Can you talk about the rise and fall of the commercial core that you’ve witnessed since your time being active in real estate in East Liberty?
We were generating a lot of momentum in the early 2010s—there was a lot of buzz from the development and business community about East Liberty. Then we came into the current administration who is now exiting. I would say that the last eight years have stunted East Liberty’s growth as we worked through and continue to work through the concerns of housing displacement in certain parts of the neighborhood.
The issue of housing and housing affordability will always be an issue that East Liberty and most other Pittsburgh neighborhoods will struggle to solve, and when you have a neighborhood like East Liberty that is so diverse, it can be even more difficult. I would argue that East Liberty is probably one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Pittsburgh from a racial, socioeconomic, age, and education standpoint. It is one of the few neighborhoods, perhaps except for downtown, where you can see people of all colors living, working, doing business, and shopping together. You can’t say that for a lot of our neighborhoods, because, quite frankly, too many are segregated and homogeneous. So, the beauty of East Liberty is its diversity, and it is also the one thing that can cause a lot of tension or create issues that other neighborhoods never have to deal with. However, for me that trade-off is a good one, as long as people on all sides are willing to work together.
When you’re developing a property, how do you ensure that you’re considering the community and its needs?
I only deal in commercial development, so from a commercial standpoint, it’s really simple: if you build something that either people can’t afford or don’t need, that property is not going to be successful. When it comes to design, the city has a decent process in place that forces engagement with local community organizations. Compared to other neighborhoods, in East Liberty, there are more community organizations that you need to interact with, whether it be ELDI, the Baum Centre initiative, the East Liberty Chamber of Commerce, or others. Generally, you’re meeting with two, three, maybe even four organizations. That whole process that you go through, whether you want to or not, will force you to understand, adapt, and work with the community. It’s built into the recipe. If you fail to heed that, then you’re probably going to have a very difficult time getting your project approved or you may get it approved and it’ll languish and linger.
Has that community engagement process for you led to any unexpected benefits, for example, changes to a building’s design that ended up being good for business?
I will say it certainly didn’t hurt. I think it’s always good to get a sense of what your neighbors’ thoughts are. I’ve had a lot of interaction with the city’s Contextual Design Advisory Panel, which is their design review committee, and we’ve gotten a lot of feedback from a design standpoint from local community groups, including ELDI. I remember the initial presentation I made for the 211 Tower. I had always had very positive presentations with ELDI, but we originally had something elaborate and kind of over-the-top planned for the 211 Tower. They looked at me like I had three heads when I presented that. They were like, “No Anthony, you cannot do this.” I was kind of surprised. I thought that they would be into it. We significantly changed our design as a result, and I’m glad we had that meeting because I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to go into a planning commission meeting knowing that the community had an aversion to what we were proposing.
Can you tell us about your commitment to public art and work with Duolingo?
When I purchased the building where Duolingo now is, I knew the day I put the property under agreement, that I was going to have to address a very difficult dilemma. On that building was the mural Lend Me Your Ears, which depicted young, African American kids, some of which I was to later understand were from East Liberty or the surrounding neighborhoods. This was a couple of years into the crescendo of concerns about gentrification and displacement, so the idea that we were going to paint over these images was a very scary and emotional thing for me personally. I was literally going to paint over community members, and I knew the symbolism of that. Unfortunately, for what we were looking to do with the building, we had no choice. To make the building functional for the long-term, we needed to put windows in the building that would give the space adequate natural light for such a large floor plan. We could tear down the building, which would have given us the same result, or we could try to reuse the building, which is what we wanted to do. That began my entry into the public arts realm.
What did you do next?
I immediately engaged the various art organizations that I thought we needed to get input from, including the The Sprout Fund that commissioned the Lend Me Your Ears mural, The Kelly Strayhorn Theater and the City of Pittsburgh’s art office. We created a committee of people and decided to have a competition to engage local artists to create new art pieces for the building. We had all that done before we ever put any kind of paint on the building, and we presented that to the City during our planning commission presentation.
One of the artworks that resulted from that competition was called The Arms of East Liberty, created by a young man named Deavron Dailey. He did a great job, and through that piece, he was able to convey the idea of everybody, regardless of color, race, or background, working together as one in the neighborhood. However, no matter what we did to bring new art onto that building, I was aware that it was never going to be good enough for some, because it’s an emotional thing. We did our best and ultimately invested over a hundred thousand dollars into public arts, through direct commissions with local artists for the building and through contributions to the Kelly Strayhorn Theater for them to do commissions themselves.
Your tenant, Duolingo, eventually took that further, creating a new mural for the building as well.
Yes, they engaged the actual artists who created Lend Me Your Ears and invested significant dollars to public art within East Liberty’s business district. We also worked with a group from CMU to digitally preserve the original mural, in a way that you can blow up those digital prints so that they are equal in size to the original work, if someone wanted to do that. While not a fun experience to go through initially, it ultimately allowed us to focus on public art for the business district and bring in key stakeholders that have also invested in public art. It’s also allowed us to develop a stronger relationship with the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, so there were many positives that came out of that negative.
Last but not least, what do you think needs to be done to continue and maintain the growth of East Liberty’s commercial core?
I’m very optimistic about the new administration coming in, which I’m assuming will be Ed Gainey. Ed’s Pennsylvania State Representative’s office is in East Liberty, and he grew up living right down the street from the business district, so he has a strong connection to it. I know that he has a lot of things that he wants to focus on, but I’m hoping assisting East Liberty will be a part of his agenda. At the end of the day, where the public sector can help is in making sure that the business district has adequate parking and an appealing streetscape with the kind of amenities that other neighborhood business districts have, which, quite frankly, we should already have. For example, lights and decorations during the holiday season. Other business districts just aesthetically look significantly better than we do, and it’s very frustrating when I drive down Lawrenceville, Walnut Street, Downtown, or even The Strip in certain parts, where there’s been a lot of public investment. Don’t get me wrong, as community members, we also have to advocate and push that along ourselves with partners like the East Liberty Chamber of Commerce but hopefully, with the new leadership that’s coming in, combined with the guidance and assistance of the community and organizations already here, we can make that happen.