In a loft-style office space at Highland Avenue and Baum Blvd, the windows open up to the neighborhood’s tallest building, the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, aptly known as the Cathedral of Hope. Virgil Cantini’s steel “Joy of Life” sculpture—six men, ten feet tall, staring heavenward arms locked in a circle—sits on the other side.

Virgil Cantini sculpture

Virgil Cantini sculpture

Below, The Livermore, East Liberty’s intimate craft cocktail and tapas bar that opened last August, pulses with cocktail shakers and laughter. “Everybody’s just talkin’ and kickin’ it,” says co-owner Bobby Fry. He sees nothing but potential in East Liberty and its people.

With good reason. Just when you think East Liberty can’t get any hotter, it does. For the past decade-plus, a remarkable transformation has occurred, fueled by two community plans and the addition of major anchor retail. Walk around East Liberty today—with cleared lots here and loud and active construction sites there—and you get the idea that much more is on the way.

There’s the impressive $30 million restoration by Walnut Capital of the historic (1920) Daniel Burnham-designed building on the corner of Highland and Centre—Walnut on Highland—that features 117 apartments and a host of amenities. It’s 100 percent leased with a waiting list.

Who’s moving in? “Young professionals, Tepper Business School and law students, UPMC and Children’s and West Penn doctors,” says developer Gregg Perelman of Walnut Capital. “We’re attracting a lot of new people to the city.”

On the ground floor, a 6000 square foot Patron Mexican Grill just opened with more retail coming soon.

Walnut Capital is also converting a building down the street, which Perelman refers to as the Penn Highland project. That’s the old PNC building which was recently marked for a movie theater conversion. When that fell through, Walnut Capital took over with plans for 60 apartments and first-floor retail. The same developer is building nearby Bakery Square 2.0 in Shadyside, a $120 million project with townhouses and apartments and office space. That includes 66,000 square feet of additional office space for Google–a major reason for growth in the area–which has its Pittsburgh headquarters across the street in Bakery Square.

Do the math and it adds up to more employees and a lot more residents for East Liberty, key to sustaining, if not fueling, growth in the area.

Perelman thinks East Liberty’s swift and continuing success has much to do with its location and the success of Pittsburgh in general. “It’s the strengths of the universities,” he says, citing CMU, Pitt, along with UPMC, “and those three major institutions have created the opportunities for spinoffs and research dollars.” Not to mention the student factor. “They want to go to school here and they want to stay.”

He goes on: “Good cost of living, great neighborhoods, great parks, great place to raise a family. All those ingredients are fueling it. Twenty percent of our people have a higher education,” says Perelman. “There are a lot of smart people here right now, and people outside the city who want to come back.”

East Liberty Place/photo by Rob Larson

East Liberty Place/photo by Rob Larson

Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Target have all improved and strengthened East Liberty’s core, he adds.

If the neighborhood is riding the coattails of its mother city, it was well positioned to do so with not one but two community plans in recent years. The 2010 community plan was based on the 1999 plan that ignited the initial transformation of the neighborhood.

“A big part was engaging the neighbors and community in coming up with a plan and then sticking with it,” says Sabina Deitrick, a co-director of the urban and regional analysis program at the University of Pittsburgh. “That process of organizing people is so important,” she stresses.

Chris Koch, interim CEO of the Design Center, echoes that, saying community is the bedrock of revitalization, in East Liberty and elsewhere. Meetings have been key, she adds, in starting the dialogue and mobilizing “residents, church leaders, bankers, anybody who feels like they want a voice” in reimagining the blighted areas.

The transformation of East Liberty started even before 2002 when Whole Foods Market came to the neighborhood as part of the EastSide project on Centre Avenue. It helped that developer Steve Mosites built a modern and beautifully designed center, as opposed to a bland-vanilla version, to house the upscale grocery store and the new businesses adjoining, from a state store to the popular Dinette.

“The notion of a neighborhood is palpable there,” says Rob Stephany, the Heinz Endowments’ director of economic and community development and former director of real estate for ELDI. And that vibe has spread to other projects today.