For 61 years, Babyland's powder-blue façade and block letters defined the corner of Penn and Negley avenues. It was a city landmark long before anyone dreamed that, a few blocks away, Penn would become an arts corridor, or that East Liberty's business district — just down the street — would attract new bars and restaurants.
But neighborhood groups fear that a proposal to bring an AutoZone parts store to the Babyland site jeopardizes years of progress. And they plan to contest some of developer's plans at a June 5 zoning hearing.
"Twenty-five or 30 years ago, we might've said, ‘There's nothing going on [along] Penn Avenue: Maybe an auto-parts store wouldn't be so bad,'" says Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation. "But times have changed."
The development is proposed by Lawrence Gumberg and LG Realty Advisors, which bought the property in 2012. LG Realty's plans envision a 6,787-square-foot store with 16 parking spaces.
The site is zoned as "Local Neighborhood Commercial," a designation which, according to the zoning code, is intended to "maintain the small scale and rich diversity of neighborhood-serving commercial districts, promote and enhance the quality of life in adjacent residential areas."
Stefani Danes, an architecture professor at Carnegie Mellon University, doesn't think the AutoZone proposal qualifies.
"Everything we've worked for on the Penn Avenue plan is looking to [create] a really vibrant and pedestrian-oriented area," says Danes, a Friendship Community Group board member. "It's not like Baum Boulevard," a heavily-trafficked thoroughfare with numerous automotive-oriented businesses.
The city's planning department found the current AutoZone proposal would require five "variances" — or exceptions — to the code. The store's design, for example, features what city planners call a "long, flat façade"; the code requires a more varied design. The store interior would also be hidden behind walls and dark glass; the zoning code requires that 60 percent of the ground floor be visible from outside.
Waiving the requirements requires a hearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment, and Swartz predicts turnout from "a number of community organizations."
"We're hearing from folks as far away from Highland Park, because people feel a sense of ownership over that corner," Swartz adds.
Gumberg did not respond to phone and email requests for comment. But private-property rights may take precedence over neighborhood misgivings.
City planning employee Kate Rakus notes that retail is expressly permitted in the area. Even if an auto-parts store isn't what neighbors have in mind, "There's nothing that regulates what you can sell in that store."
Danes says she thinks community groups would compromise "if [the store] didn't diminish the quality of the street," and included better urban-architecture principles. "Everybody was at least willing to have a meeting with the developer," she says.
Community groups met with Gumberg in February. Gumberg "listened for quite a while — I give him credit," says Freddie Croce, an architect and former BGC board member. But he says that while Gumberg said "a large national retailer might want to move in there, he was pretty cagey about what it might be."
Over the following months, Swartz says, "We didn't hear anything from him. Then three weeks ago, we got notice from city planning that he's looking for zoning approval."
Representatives of BGC and neighborhood groups from East Liberty and Friendship responded in a May 12 letter. In it, they expressed fear that a project "that discourages pedestrians and does not contribute to the distinctive character of the district ... will undo some of the progress" made in the area. The groups pledged "to do what it takes to stop development that would be detrimental to ... the future of Penn Avenue."
So far, elected officials have said little. The property falls in City Councilor Ricky Burgess' district, though Shawn Carter, Burgess' chief of staff, says it's unclear whether Burgess would weigh in.
"We're going to have to talk to the neighbors and see how they feel," Carter says.
Mayor Bill Peduto also sounded cautious. "The corner itself could be an entranceway to both the arts corridor and East Liberty," he says. And "There are so many auto places in that area that I don't see a need for it. But everybody has rights."
"If done in the right way, I could see where [an AutoZone] would be beneficial," Peduto adds. "But it would have to be an urban model, and most of these that I've seen have had a suburban model."
The Zoning Board will hold a hearing on the development at 9:20 a.m. on Thu., June 5, at 200 Ross St., Downtown.