The Tito house in Uptown, in a photo submitted to the City Planning Commission on Feb. 8, 2022.
The Tito-Mecca-Zizza house in Uptown, in a photo by historian David Rotenstein submitted to the City Planning Commission on Feb. 8, 2022.

A divided City Planning Commission approved the development of a one-story bank in the heart of East Liberty despite concerns that the design wasn’t consistent with the neighborhood’s increasing density of development.

JP Morgan Chase bought the former CVS store at 6100 Penn Avenue for $3.2 million in July. The bank wants to demolish it and build a smaller, 3,300-square-foot building with 11 parking spaces and some 20 trees in the back.

To make it more consistent with area buildings, Chase plans to add a false second floor, bringing the height close to 25 feet.

Representatives of both the East Liberty Chamber of Commerce and East Liberty Development Inc. spoke in favor of the proposal.

“It’s going to be terrific and we’re all excited,” said Lori Moran, president of the chamber’s board.

Bruce Chan, an urban designer involved with several civic organizations, decried the “suburban-like development” which he said was at odds with East Liberty’s increasing density and the city’s overall drive for more vibrant business districts. “A one-story building with a fake second story and built on less than half of the parcel is inconsistent with that vision,” he said.

An artist’s rendering of a proposed Chase Bank branch that would replace the CVS Pharmacy in East Liberty, as presented to the City Planning Commission in January 2022.

Commissioner Sabina Deitrick and Chair Christine Mondor agreed that the proposed building was out of sync with the larger-scale construction around it. Mondor called it “a tiny building covering a fraction of the site.”

Both voted against the proposal.

Commissioner Becky Mingo, though, noted that development rules for the area don’t require any specific building height or size.

“We’re at a place in our city where we may want to consider bigger changes” in development rules, she said. “But right now, as a Planning Commission, we have the code that we have now.” 

Mingo and four other members voted in favor of Chase’s plan, with Rachel O’Neill abstaining.

Ties to brewing and Negro Leagues baseball sway commission

The commission united to recommend the historic nomination of a 138-year-old house and adjacent garage in Uptown, despite the vehement opposition of the owners and the disapproval of the Historic Review Commission.

The house at 1817 Fifth Avenue and the garage at 1818 Colwell Street were the home of the family of Joseph Tito, who was a noted Prohibition-era bootlegger and numbers operator. 

Tito was “one of Pittsburgh’s most consequential organized crime figures and entrepreneurs,” said historian David Rotenstein, who wrote the report nominating the buildings for designation, in testimony before the commission.

The Tito family later ran Latrobe Brewing Company, maker of Rolling Rock Beer. They were also investors in the Pittsburgh Crawfords Negro Leagues baseball team and its Greenlee Field.

The community organization Uptown Partners of Pittsburgh nominated the long-empty buildings for historic designation. The organization is also trying to take control of the house through a process called conservatorship, which allows responsible owners to act as stewards of properties, repair them and potentially own or sell them.

Referred to as the Tito-Mecca-Zizza house, the building is “a valued part of our neighborhood which, if protected and preserved, would become an asset to our community,” said Sabreena Miller, real estate and development program manager for Uptown Partners.

The Tito-Mecca-Zizza house, in a photo submitted by David Rotenstein to the City Planning Commission.

The house is owned by the children of the late James McGuire, who oppose the nomination, according to their attorney, Patrick Rega. He said it would cost at least $2.5 million to rehabilitate the property, and the family instead supports demolition so it can be sold to a developer as part of a proposed 23-parcel mixed-use development.

The Historic Review Commission found that the buildings did not meet its criteria for designation, according to Sarah Quinn, the city’s historic preservation planner.

The Planning Commission, though, has different criteria. Mondor called the house a “remaining artifact” of the days in which Victorian homes were common in the Fifth Avenue corridor. 

“I am a great believer in learning from history,” added Commissioner Holly Dick. “No matter how unsavory or how unpretty it is, we need to look at it and learn from it.”

All of the commissioners in attendance voted to recommend the designation to Pittsburgh City Council, which has the final word.

Commission consideration of the contentious Oakland Crossings proposal, which would allow dense development and more varied uses in 18 acres of South Oakland and Central Oakland, was postponed for a month at the request of Mayor Ed Gainey. The postponement was the second for Walnut Capital’s rezoning plan, which had originally been slated for an early January commission vote.

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

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Rich is the managing editor of PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...