Alphabet City tries to spell success in East Liberty

 – Reporter- Pittsburgh Business Times

Anthony Dolan is working to launch two new projects in the heart of the East Liberty business district.

Dolan, who left Walnut Capital Partners to start Alphabet City Co. in 2011, plans to redevelop three small, neighboring commercial properties on Penn Avenue into a retail and office project that will offer between 9,200 and 10,000 square feet of rentable space per floor.

The properties are located across the street from Target, and include a long-established Yen’s Gourmet Chinese Restaurant, which Dolan said will remain open until further notice. The two other buildings, which Dolan’s firm has an agreement to buy from East Liberty Development Inc., include a nail shop and a building that is unoccupied and deteriorating.

Dolan said his preliminary plan is to raze all three buildings and replace them with new construction that would offer larger floors and better leverage in a location that now benefits from a major discount department store operating nearby.

“I want to make this building a signature building,” said Dolan of the Penn Avenue plan, describing it as one of the strongest and most dynamic retail intersections in the city’s thriving East End. “It’s critical that what we do there is done well and sets the tone for the rest of the corridor.”

Dolan also has two adjoining buildings at 5915 and 5921 Baum Boulevard totaling 13,000 square feet under agreement and plans to renovate what’s now an established warehouse structure into a new store, restaurant or office space. The properties are located next to a former Y building that is being redeveloped into a boutique Ace Hotel.

“We’re going to try to make this building complimentary to the hotel and add some pizazz to the neighborhood,” he said.

Both the Penn Avenue and Baum Boulevard projects are surrounded by established and often underused city parking lots. Dolan said he expects the projects to be market-driven, with tenant interest dictating which one gets started first.

Dolan declined to divulge what he expects to pay for the buildings. But county records indicate the Baum Boulevard property has a total assessed value of $114,000 and was last sold in 2003 for $228,000. The three neighboring Penn Avenue properties have a total assessed value of $172,000, according to county records.

Dolan emphasized both projects are early stage, and he has yet to meet with the city or the community about his proposals. He hopes to close on the Penn Avenue buildings this spring and saw as a best-case scenario beginning construction next year, given the need for on-site demolition. He has chosen Joe Tosi of Oxford Development to represent the Penn Avenue office space.

Dolan’s two projects come amid a host of large developments underway nearby.

His Penn Avenue properties are right across the street from where the Mosites Co. is planning to build a multiuse transportation center. Dolan’s former partners with Walnut Capital are working with Massaro Properties to build out the former Highland building into new apartments, which are expected to open this spring.

Meanwhile, a plan to replace a long-closed PNC Bank branch with a movie theater and apartments is moving ahead after preliminary terms were reached with a senior lender, said Nate Cunningham, director of commercial real estate with ELDI, whose organization is developing the project with Blasier Urban LLC. He called it a “huge” step forward in generating full financing.

Cunningham said he’s noticed development interest extending onto Penn Avenue.

“What we’re seeing is a transition from affordable housing being the leader to more market-rate apartments and retail being the leader,” he said. “We view that as a natural transition.”

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