Bakery Square expansion sparks controversy

Bakery Square is a large commercial and residential complex in the neighborhood of East Liberty, and it may soon be growing.

The complex is bisected by Penn Avenue, and the two halves are joined by a three-story bridge that spans the road. North of Penn is the shopping center, which includes restaurants, a gym, hotel, and corporate office space (including research offices for Google). South of Penn Ave is "Bakery Living," a pair of high-density apartment buildings with 350 total units, and "Bakery Village," a complex of 52 lower-density townhouse units.

On the site of a former Nabisco factory, the land was purchased after nearly a decade of disuse in 2007 by Walnut Capital, a real estate developer and management firm with over 4,000 tenants in their properties throughout the city. Walnut Capital owns Bakery Square and have been steadily expanding the site since their initial purchase; in 2012 after the city closed a nearby middle school, the land was purchased and converted to the aforementioned Bakery Living.

Bakery Square is zoned as "Specially Planned" (SP), a designation with flexible requirements designed to accommodate large, multimodal urban centers (for instance, PPG Paints Arena and the adjoining parking lots are also SP).

In July, City of Pittsburgh Councilman Ricky Burgess, representing Pittsburgh's 9th district which includes East Liberty, Highland Park, and adjoining neighborhoods introduced legislation that would nearly double the size of this SP district.

Adjacent to Bakery Square is a shopping mall known as "The Village of Eastside," which includes a Trader Joes, McDonalds, Staples, and other large retail facilities. It is currently zoned as "Highway Commercial" (HC), which the city defines as a region intended to "accommodate auto-oriented commercial activities" and "provide space for large-scale regional retail stores…that tend to be incompatible with locations adjoining smaller neighborhoods." It's a rarely used zoning designation in Pittsburgh, and this land in question is the only HC plot in the "triangle" of Pittsburgh between both two rivers — all other HC plots are located in the lower-density neighborhoods south of the Monongahela.

The expansion is facing resistance from residents, with many concerned over how such an expansion ties into the gentrification of East Liberty. East Liberty saw a strong campaign of "Urban Renewal" in the 1960s, a mid-20th century urban redevelopment practice that involved replacing old or "blighted" structures with business centers that were more amenable to automobiles. Nearly half of the structures in East Liberty were demolished, which some attribute to the economic decline of the neighborhood.

In the early 2000s, renewed investment in East Liberty led to a number of new developments; the Village of Eastside was built in 2006, followed by Bakery Square and Target.

However, these developments came at the cost of raising property values beyond what many renters in the area could afford. In 2015, the Poverty and Race Research Action Council collected a series of testimonials from East Liberty residents who had been priced out of the neighborhood, in many cases where they had lived their whole lives.

La'Tasha Mayes is the Pennsylvania State Representative for a swath of Pittsburgh which covers East Liberty, and has argued “Bakery Square is not for me…I don’t see Black people working in the stores.”

Walnut Capital recently shared plans for the development, which will include the construction of six new residential and commercial buildings. Mayor Ed Gainey has said he is "not entertaining housing proposals that do not have a certain percentage of affordability in it," claiming that in the past, Walnut Capital has had "carte blanche" to build housing without affordable units.

This area of East Liberty has been seeing significant development in recent years. In addition to the steady growth of Bakery Square, the East Liberty Giant Eagle was demolished in 2022. In its place, there will be a new Giant Eagle store and a 230-unit apartment complex with ground-level retail.

Walnut Capital will continue to negotiate with city government to obtain approval to expand their Specially Planned district, as well as the necessary zoning variance to build above the current height limit.