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.

“East Liberty went from blighted and ‘keep off the grass’ to the definition of what millennials are looking for,” Stephany says. “It’s a little quirky, a little unfinished, a little diverse. All that stuff has the right criteria of what constitutes a great place for people to live.”

The Beauty Shoppe/photo by Rob Larson

The Beauty Shoppe/photo by Rob Larson

The Endowments is supporting the ELDI for the coming Ace Hotel on S. Whitfield Street. A $23 million conversion of the former five-story YMCA, the Ace will be only the eighth in the world. Also underway nearby is the Indigo Hotel, another hip boutique hotel.

The Ace Hotel’s reputation as one of trendiest hotels rests on it its new-age bohemia vibe—complete with fun touches such vinyl record players in the rooms and a microbrew bar. When plans were announced, many cheered it as a coup for Pittsburgh and East Liberty, credited in good part to the Google office in Bakery Square, another transformative project for the area (technically in Larimer) with Bakery Square II (technically in Shadyside) under construction across the street.

“We provided a grant for Ace to ELDI,” Stephany explains. “And once it’s up and running [expected in 2015], they’ll start paying that investment back. Fifty percent of those proceeds go to ELDI and 50 percent goes to East End Cooperative Ministries,” which provides emergency shelter and food for the needy.

Connecting the emerging commercial enterprises directly with the community has proven to be an exciting opportunity, adds Stephany.

It’s one of many, as it turns out.

The new design standards in the 2010 plan helped restore the traditional urban street grid to attract shoppers to national retailers in East Liberty, says Skip Schwab, investment officer at ELDI. “At one time East Liberty was the third largest business district in the state. Re-building the street grid which was lost during urban renewal, reducing crime, and rebuilding the residential enclave were all key parts in restoring the commercial market.”

All in

Four years following that plan, the area is buzzing with new construction on nearly every main street and new businesses such as the The Shop in East Liberty, Union Pig and Chicken, and its upstairs counterpart, Harvard on Highland. East Liberty Place South, a 52-unit mixed-use, mixed income apartment building with ground floor retail is underway on what used to be Penn Circle. Along with  East Liberty Place North, it’s a redevelopment of the torn-down East Mall apartments. Recently even the street names were given new life when they were renamed to drop reference to the old Penn Circle, a failed urban design effort.

Another major step in the neighborhood’s development has been its transformation into a transit hub with easy access to other parts of the city. Schwab says developers continue to show interest in the area because of the success of current retailers, and “the location of East Liberty in the heart of the East End with excellent transit connections to Downtown and Oakland.”

The planned East Liberty Transit Center, a $137 million multimodal transit center serving more than 800 buses daily—which got a $5 million investment boost from Gov. Corbett’s office in March—is expected to be completed in 2016. The Urban Redevelopment Authority, in partnership with Mosites and the Port Authority–won a highly competitive $15 million TIGER grant for this multi-use development. It might be the biggest game-changer in the neighborhood, says Paul Svoboda of the URA.

East Liberty will benefit in a myriad of ways, from better pedestrian and bike connections to shorter bus routing and faster transfers. The Urban Redevelopment Authority, working with Mosites Company as the developer, will reconstruct the bus station on the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway (which the pedestrian bridge spans and where a second is slated to be built). Also planned is a storage area for bicycles, residential and commercial space, and a parking garage with more than 500 spaces.

Kevin Sousa's Union Pig and Chicken/photo by Rob Larson

Kevin Sousa’s Union Pig and Chicken/photo by Rob Larson

“One of the key messages is to create better connections,” says developer Steve Mosites of the Transit Center and the new bridge. “A mission is to keep people in the neighborhood without the need to drive.”

The transit center will certainly benefit startup incubators such as ThinkTiv and Thrill Mill and the shared workspace Beauty Shoppe, all of which have brought in mostly younger entrepreneurs and creative thinkers to the area. They build on more established venues such as the venerable Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, an anchor in the community, and a major force for community and cultural events.

Nearby but outside the core, new owner Jason Lardo of Integrity Construction contemplates new use for the 53,000 square foot, three-level building that used to house Family Resources.

While some bemoan the gentrification of East Liberty–how many minority businesses have closed since 2010? one tweeted in response to this article the day of publication–the data on the neighborhood speaks more of its humble roots. Based on 2010 census, the data from local company Niche shows that population is small, at 6,236 with a below average median income of $25,757. The median rent is only $665, and a large percentage—82%–rent as opposed to own. The average home price is $81,500.

It’s ripe for opportunity.

But not fussy
After Bobby Fry and partners’ success with Bar Marco in the Strip District, Fry saw the opportunity in East Liberty. “We wanted to build a café for the neighborhood that encompasses everything going on here,” he says of  The Livermore’s craft cocktail and tapas bar. During the day the S.Highland Avenue business pulls double duty as a juice bar.

Inspired by Brooklyn’s “loudish, but not fussy” culture of casual run-ins with friends before and after dinner, The Livermore is just one stop in what’s become East Liberty’s foodie mecca at that junction.

“We just love that corner,” says restaurateur Rick Stern, who co-owns Spoon at Highland and Centre and around the corner, BRGR, two spots he categorizes as “casual fine dining.” They opened in 2010 across from the Plum Pan Asian Kitchen.

Just up the street more dining options await, from the popular diner-style bar Kelly’s to the cozy and stylish Paris 66 Bistro. Everyday’s a Sundae recently opened its doors on the same small but retail-packed side of the block. More independent retail can be found–next door to The Livermore is Trim, a men’s underwear shop and the only one of its kind in Pittsburgh, and around the bend on Penn is Zeke’s Coffee, a beloved independent coffee shop that opened in 2010.

Stern says based on the demographics and trajectory of East Liberty dining (Notion  relocated from Oakmont and opened just doors away), “this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Could be. “There’s a natural energy here,” says Fry who notes that East Liberty is built like a campus—with its un-Pittsburgh-like flatness and commerce both in its core and out to its edges. He notes that the Obama Academy was just named one of the top 50 schools in the state and, along with  the Chamber of Commerce,  he and local entrepreneur Bobby Zappala just co-hosted the first monthly jazz fest on a closed-down Baum Blvd. It drew 1000 people. (Look for the next one the second Saturday of June.)

Already, Fry and partners are expanding. Construction is underway next door at The Livermore for an extension into the former Shadow Lounge, a pioneer and catalyst in the area.

At The Livermore/photo by Rob Larson

At The Livermore/photo by Rob Larson

The long and stylish hardwood bar—mason jars with silverware on top and an antique chandelier overhead—seats more than a dozen. “The back-bar is just for display,” Fry says. “I don’t have to turn my back to you. I don’t have to turn my back to the church across the street.” And, as if speaking for a lot of people in the community right now, he adds, “And I’m not going to turn my back to the neighborhood.”

NEXTpittsburgh editor Tracy Certo contributed to this article.