What will the development boom mean for the merchants that keep the Strip District funky?
Jimmy Sunseri chomps on a cigar as a mix of aromas, from pepperoni rolls to baked goods, fills his store in the heart of the Strip District.
On this day, he is not in his red chair — the one in the middle of Jimmy & Nino Sunseri Co. with the sign above that reads “DO NOT Sit in my Chair!!”
Instead, he is in a side room, telling tales about his 54 years in the Strip, a run that started when he was 13 years old and laboring for his dad without pay.
Back then, he estimates, there were 33 fruit and vegetable wholesalers working the docks in the produce terminal a block north on Smallman Street.
“I can remember they would be playing liar’s poker with $100 bills,” he said. “You could walk up and down that platform, and there would always be a crap game going on.”
Nearly all of those businesses are gone now. Only two produce wholesalers remain in the Strip.
Now Mr. Sunseri and other retailers on Penn Avenue — that funky stretch of generations-old ethnic and fish markets, coffee shops, fruit stands, restaurants, bars, souvenir stores and street vendors — are questioning whether a similar fate awaits them.
Development on Smallman already has eaten into parking for their customers, resulting, at least temporarily, in a drop in business for some. And some merchants complain the city is too aggressive in enforcing limits at on-street parking meters.
There are fears that rising rent prices could force retailers out of business — and that the explosion of tech-centered office complexes, high-end housing and commercial ventures around them could cost the Strip its soul.
Jim Coen, owner of the Yinzers souvenir stores, has formed a business association to help protect Penn Avenue retailers. Too often, he complained, decisions are being made by the city or others that could impact Penn Avenue without consulting the merchants who are its lifeblood.
“The city is looking at the amount of money developers are bringing into the city, and sometimes I don’t think they think about the history,” he added. “The real reason everyone is coming to the Strip District is Penn Avenue.”
City Councilwoman Deborah Gross, who represents the Strip, understands the anxiety: “I think everyone’s concerned that we keep the things we love as we add new things,” she said.
But Ms. Gross’ concerns extend far beyond Penn Avenue. In some cases, she said, the Strip is ill-equipped to handle development flooding the neighborhood. There’s a need for more sidewalks, street lighting and other amenities.
While Penn Avenue “is always on our minds,” she said, “there are neighborhood issues now that we didn’t use to have. Where are you going to get your toilet paper? Where do you get your drugstore refills? Where do you go to the doctor? Where’s your playgrounds? Where’s your green space?”
Not everybody is worried. Jim Wholey, president of the Robert Wholey & Co. fish market that has been a Strip mainstay since 1953, embraces the development taking place.
“The Strip is going to be better than ever,” he said.
A tourist draw
The Strip has long been defined by its produce wholesalers and the Penn Avenue corridor — a tourist draw on par with Seattle’s Pike Place or Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal.
A stretch of about eight blocks is filled with everything from Polish delicacies to Terrible Towels. At Pennsylvania Macaroni Co., salamis, hot dogs and other meats hang from a shelf in full view of passersby, and cheeses from all parts of the world stuff display cases. The sidewalks are lined with racks holding trinkets, jewelry, clothing, scarves, hats, and fruits and vegetables. Street vendors cook up sausages, egg rolls and chicken on a stick.
But a block or two away, the old-world flavor gives way to Robotics Row, where well-heeled tech firms like Apple and Facebook have gobbled up space in glittering office complexes being built on Smallman and along the riverfront. Autonomous vehicle companies Uber and Argo AI have taken up residence in the neighborhood, too.
Over the past five years, by Ms. Gross’ count, some 3,000 offices and 2,000 condominiums or apartments have been added in the Strip. Ten years ago, a condo could be had for as little as $240 a square foot. Now the average is about $452.
Retailers typically welcome growth. Some Penn Avenue merchants view this new wave as a mixed blessing, saying they have yet to see much benefit from increased foot traffic but that they’re already dealing with fallout.
One of the biggest involves parking — or the lack of it. Anyone who has tried to snag a space on Penn on a Saturday knows that all too well.
Merchants say the situation has been exacerbated by the $23 million Smallman Street reconstruction — which includes traffic improvements, bike lanes, and new water and sewer lines — and revamping the massive produce terminal that has long served as the neighborhood’s anchor.
Combined, the two projects have eliminated more than 100 parking spaces, according to the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure.
Zhong Zhuang, owner of Lotus Food Co., estimates his business is down 20%. Fatima Lisa Pass-Arenas, co-owner of the PachaMama Divine Connection boutique, said hers is off 40%.
As owner Gus Stamoolis stands amid the spices, vinegars and tempting Greek desserts inside the 109-year-old Stamoolis Brothers Co. business at 2020 Penn, he worries the parking situation could sour the Strip’s drawing power as a supplier of restaurants and other merchants and customers.
“It’s a big concern for us because it’s not like it’s Giant Eagle, where they come in with a bag,” he said. “There are people who come here and buy cases of merchandise. They can’t be expected to take cases and haul it blocks away to their cars.”
Adding to the misery, some retailers say, is that the city has been aggressive in enforcing the two-hour limit on the metered parking on Penn.
“I’ve heard people say ‘I’m not coming back to this place. I come here to save a few dollars, and they give me a ticket for $29,’” said Robert Ching, owner of the Moonlight Express food truck, which is stationed in a vacant lot on Penn and where visitors can find barbecue chicken kabobs, pad thai noodles and General Tso’s chicken.
Some relief, at least in terms of the parking crunch, will come later this fall when the Smallman reconstruction breaks for the winter. The entire project should be finished in late spring.
There should be more improvement when Chicago-based McCaffery Interests opens 229 spaces in a garage and underground parking next summer as part of its 1600 Smallman development. It also is planning another 266 surface spaces behind the produce terminal.
The Department of Mobility and Infrastructure estimates that the Strip as a whole has more than 10,000 parking spaces, with more than 3,000 proposed as part of new projects. About 47% of the spaces are available to the public.
In a survey conducted in May, the city found that two-thirds of those interviewed drove to the Strip, nearly 20% walked and 10% took transit.
Given the additions, Matt Napper, president of the Strip District Neighbors community group, believes there should be more than enough parking available for customers and others.
Still, some merchants are skeptical. The garage will be built at 16th Street and Smallman — at the far west end of the Penn commercial corridor. Rates have yet to be established, but some fear they could be much higher than what visitors are used to paying, in some cases as little as $5.
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Malling of Penn Avenue?
Joe Hermanowski — owner of Black and Gold Forever, crammed with sports apparel and memorabilia, in the Strip — likes to remind people there’s no Starbucks on Penn Avenue.
“We’re probably the only place in the world that Starbucks couldn’t bust,” he bragged. “You know why they couldn’t do it? Because we had too many coffee shops.”
Except for a McDonald’s, you won’t find any chain stores on Penn — not a Gap or an American Eagle Outfitters or an Apple Store. It is a stretch populated by local icons like Wholey’s, DeLuca’s, Penn Mac, Jimmy & Nino’s, Stamoolis, Mancini’s Bakery and Parma Sausage — all places that have served generations of Pittsburghers.
But as the Strip changes, some fear that it could open the door for higher rent, displacement and the malling of Penn Avenue.
Development, Mr. Ching said, pushed out “the small guys with little stores” in East Liberty. Ms. Pass-Arenas fears Penn could become more like Walnut Street in Shadyside, with national retailers displacing local ones.
“For me, if they lose the charm of the Strip, they will lose everything,” she said.
Not everyone views change as alarming.
“It’s important to preserve the historic style but you have to do business,” said Mr. Zhuang, the Lotus owner. “If you always look like this, it’s going to be less business. But if you put in more stores and make it nicer, it’s more business.”
Several merchants said McCaffery is seeking about $42 a square foot for rents in the produce terminal — a rate that would be prohibitive for some Penn retailers who pay about $20 to $30 a square foot now.
The Jones Lang LaSalle real estate firm estimates current retail rents range from $35 to $40 a square foot.
Buffeting such concerns is that many of the longtimers on Penn own their property.
But Ms. Gross said the fears are legitimate. “Commercial gentrification is as much of a threat to some of our Pittsburgh neighborhoods as residential gentrification,” she said.
To help protect Strip merchants, the city, she noted, has established a $1 million business loan fund. According to the city Urban Redevelopment Authority, the fund is available to local and regional businesses seeking to open in the produce terminal or in the surrounding Strip commercial corridor.
The way to protect Penn Avenue is through such investment so that “you’re not just subsidizing big outside developers with your tax breaks and your tax policies, but you’re setting aside funds that are targeted just for us,” Ms. Gross said.
Produce terminal ambivalence
Merchants seem to view one of their biggest potential competitors — the produce terminal — with ambivalence.
McCaffery is pitching a plan that includes a “food-centric” market at the western end of the 1,533-foot landmark, which runs from 16th to 21st streets. There will be restaurants, brewpubs, a chef incubator kitchen, to-go food, and coffee and cocktail bars.
The developer also has agreed to lease at least 40,000 square feet within the complex to local and regional businesses focused on artisan food, crafts, produce, meats and creative arts.
“I mean, it will impact us somehow, because we’re in the Strip,” noted Catina Stamoolis, daughter of Gus Stamoolis and co-owner of the family business. “It’s just yet to be seen whether it will be positive or negative.”
Mr. Zhuang doesn’t see the terminal affecting him “unless they bring in another big Asian store. Then [it’s] a big concern.”
Dan McCaffery, CEO of McCaffery Interests, has insisted the goal of the redevelopment is not to compete with Penn Avenue merchants but to complement them.
Studying parking issues
Regarding business losses over parking issues, “We do think that’s temporary,” stressed Karina Ricks, director of the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure.
The city is conducting a study to come up with strategies to manage parking in response to the development boom. The study also will look at public transit options and other means to help people get around, including electric bikes and shuttles. Recommendations are expected later this year.
To loosen up the coveted metered spaces on Penn, one idea the city is considering is managing that through price rather than time limits.
“If they want to stay longer, they might want to park further away from the destination. They benefit from a lower parking price. If they’re staying for a shorter period, maybe a higher rate is not onerous to them,” Ms. Ricks said.
Some wholesalers on Smallman have also been struggling with parking, but in a different way. Companies like Mahla Furniture and J. Marcus Wholesalers have altered their truck deliveries because of the Smallman reconstruction.
Instead of backing deliveries into the permanent docks they’ve worked for decades, they’re now using temporary ones — paid for by the city — to park trucks parallel to their warehouses.
On a longer-term basis, new bike lanes, sidewalks and an extension of the produce terminal dock will narrow Smallman, making it far more difficult to back trucks in.
Those temporary docks are now expected to become permanent under an agreement between the wholesalers and the city, Ms. Ricks said.
“It’s a good compromise,” she said. Just who will pay for the docks is still being worked out, she noted.
Phil Marcus, vice president of J. Marcus Wholesalers, said his company shouldn’t have to foot the bill.
“We assume McCaffery or DOMI is going to take care of it, but that has not been finalized,” he said.
In a lot on Penn, Mr. Ching sits at a table as he talks about his 32-plus years in the Strip.
He has known good times and bad. He started in a store on Penn. But that “went belly up, so I end up in the parking lot.” That’s where his Moonlight Express truck is stationed now.
The 70-year-old businessman remembers when many stores were so packed before holidays that you couldn’t get in the door. Although the crowds still can be big, he doesn’t see as many new faces these days. Those who do come are mainly tourists.
Mr. Sunseri recalls the years when four generations of the same family could be shopping in the same store at the same time.
Now, a lot of the people who live in the apartments, condos and townhomes reshaping the Strip work all day.
“When they come home, I’m closed,” he pointed out.
Merchants are taking some steps to adapt. About a dozen of the businesses have started to stay open until 7 p.m. on Thursdays.
“We’ve been trying to do it for years. We just felt it would be nice, especially around the holidays,” Mr. Coen said, adding that merchants also are working on doing their own Light-Up Night.
Mr. Ching has seen development drive out locals in places like Brooklyn, New York. It could happen in the Strip, too, he concedes. But he remains optimistic that all of those new offices, apartments and condos will bring prosperity, not pain.
“We just have to hang in there and see what’s going to happen,” he said.
Mark Belko: email@example.com or 412-263-1262