Pittsburgh’s City Planning Commission denied for a second time a proposal to demolish and rebuild an East Liberty bank, citing pedestrian and cyclist safety along with its arguable historic significance. 

Constructed in 1969 and 1970, the building was originally a Mellon Bank branch. Its most recent occupant, Citizens Bank, asked the commission to permit it to demolish the current two-story structure and replace it with a one-story building that would make architectural nods to the current structure. Opponents of the demolition have cited the building’s significance as an example of Mellon’s bank designs, but were denied historic designation last year. 

After a presentation by Citizens Bank and input from community members, the commissioners voted unanimously to deny, without prejudice, the proposal to demolish and rebuild. By denying without prejudice, the commission allows Citizens Bank to return with a revised proposal.

Commissioner Becky Mingo said that the bank’s proposal to cut curbs in a heavily trafficked area would pose a safety risk to pedestrians and cyclists by blurring the lines between the sidewalk and the road. 

“You’re asking us to add additional curb cuts on a very busy street,” Mingo said. “But adding that with cyclist and pedestrian activity decreases safety. You’re asking us to change how that area relates to Centre Avenue and I believe that’s not good.”

The southwest side of a former Mellon Bank branch in East Liberty, as presented to the City Planning Commission on May 18, 2021.
The former Mellon Bank and then Citizens Bank branch in East Liberty.

She also echoed points made by several residents who voiced their opposition. “This project does not address architectural relationships between surrounding buildings, she said. “I understand this is not a historic building. It is still however a significant building, structure and place and your proposal does not address that.”

Bruce Bisbano and Michael Knipper with Citizens Bank presented the proposal, which was originally made last year. At that time it was denied after commissioners concluded that the design did not fit into the context of the area nor the “street rhythm,” according to information provided by the bank’s presenters at Tuesday’s meeting.

Citizens Bank has occupied the building since 2002, according to Knipper, who heads the bank’s property and procurement. He said the building is too large for their current needs and they want to rebuild smaller. The new proposal was meant to address the commission’s original critiques with a return to an increased overall height and by using brick and metal paneling to fit in with the surrounding structures. 

“We believe we made a design that complies with zoning and we listened to feedback of community and advisory panels,” Knipper said. “The proposal here reflects those changes.”

But four residents disagreed, while one resident supported the proposal.

Rob Pfaffmann, a Pittsburgh resident and architect, said the design felt like a suburban building inserted into an urban environment. 

“Are we preserving the uniqueness of Pittsburgh? The architecture in this case, are we strengthening the neighborhood? And the answer is clearly ‘no’ to both,” Pfaffmann said. “This suburban development reduces the community’s ability to rebuild itself equitably. There’s nothing unique.”

He concluded: “This is the wrong place, wrong community, wrong time.”

Brittany Reilly, a resident who nominated the building to be designated as historic, called the new design “especially offensive.

“They proposed the [original] granite … be used as a wall in the parking lot. Once our neighborhoods are gone they’re gone and a gesture of slabs cannot fix that.”

Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at ericj@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.

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Eric Jankiewicz is a reporter focused on housing and economic development for PublicSource. A native New Yorker, Eric moved to Pittsburgh in 2017 and has since fallen in love with his adopted city, even...