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3.15.2020

A Stroll Down Baum 2014 vs 2020: A look at Quality of Life in Pittsburgh & the American Economy

Today we take a stroll down Baum Boulevard, just under six years after we first did so on our page. In many ways, Baum Boulevard shows us a baseline of where America is at right now in terms of the economy and quality of life. It has historic structures and businesses that give us insights into the many boom times and busts since the late 1800s. It is very much an area that is in flux, leaving us with a mixed bag when it comes to quality of life for people in the region. Generally we focus more upon upbeat articles on tourism and travel, but this article will be a deeper look into the history and quality of life of the place we call home.

We start at the beginning of Baum Boulevard, at its intersection with Bigelow Boulevard on the edge of North Oakland and the Upper Hill. 
An old Amusement Park, Luna Park, was located at this location. The above map features of a view of the park land in 1910, which showed the park buildings, but included then paper streets that would be created once demolition of the park was complete, since it had closed in 1909. This is the start of Baum Boulevard's historic Automobile Row, a place that introduced the region and the country to cutting edge automobile technology. It was filled with car dealerships, tire stores, and more, along with being part of the routing of the first coast-to-coast designated auto route, the Lincoln Highway.  It still is referred to as the old Lincoln Highway and also is home to a few car dealers and auto parts/repair places.
The same plot of land in 1923, thanks to http://peoplemaps.esri.com/pittsburgh/
The specific building in the prior photo is the UPMC Wolff Center, which is utilized as a training center for UPMC. It also served as the Oakland Motor Car Company dealership, and adjacent buildings housed tire stores for Kelly-Springfield and BF Goodrich, in addition to Oldsmobile, Nash, and more. 
The black building on the left remains in use as a car dealership. Porsche currently occupies a spot which was first used as a car dealership by the Paige Motor Company, which went under in 1927, and Fisk Tire. Through various times in its history, it remained used as a tire company building. The black building also served as a concert venue, known as the Graffiti Showcase. The second floor hosted bands such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Green Day, Hootie and the Blowfish, and local bands such as the Clarks, Joe Grushecky and the House Rockers, and more. According to the Pittsburgh Music History website, 1500 bands played at the old venue. Since 2000, it has only been used for the storage of more cars. 
One of the most impressive buildings of Baum Boulevard's Auto Row largely sits as additional car storage for P&W BMW and an Budget car rental location. They have done the bare minimum to keep the building intact. There is a storefront on the left side of the building that is used as the Budget rental counter area. Otherwise cars are just strewn about the property in any place that they can fit. 

1913, from an auto trade publication, The Horseless Age
Back to the 1923 map. The building with the busted facade appears to be the old Kaufmann-Baer Garage, which was a repair/storage shop for trucks from the old Kaufmann's Department Store. That portion of the building appears to be this section with the decrepit storefront.
The storefront of the building, which has so much gorgeous potential, is just sitting and rotting away. It was last officially used as the used car dealership of the old Auto Palace, which used to run the Porsche Dealer across the street. The building has now declined into an even bigger eyesore that is mostly used as car storage. Over the years, the building was used for other used car dealerships, a Pontiac dealership, and even a Papa John's Franchise. It would be great if the front storefront could be used again, or at least restored.
The side parking area once housed an Atlantic Service Station

 This building has so much potential, but I have a heavy feeling that it may face the wrecking ball at some point instead. 
Looking across the bridge and the old B&O Passenger Mainline/current Allegheny Valley Railroad Right-of-Way, we can see the old Studebaker dealership on the right. It is currently used as the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Since our last article, the building has received an exterior rehab that has added new windows and cleaned off vandalism on the walls. In the center you can see Pep Boys and the old Ford Model T Assembly Plant. On the left you can see Mercedes Benz of Pittsburgh, which has created a sprawling campus for itself that spans pretty much an entire city block.
The railroad tunnel on the Allegheny Valley Railroad. 
Looking the other way on the bridge, towards the railroad, East Busway Ramp, old Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line, Bloomfield, Children's Hospital, and Lawrenceville.
Khalil's Indian Restaurant, one of the few remaining family owned restaurants on Baum Boulevard.
FE Johanssen & Sons Plumbing is another great family business that has called Baum Boulevard home for a long time.
P&W BMW and Chipotle. Two brands that are prominent in 21st century life.
 As chain fast food has proliferated, many local family businesses have faltered. The Orient Kitchen was on Baum Boulevard for decades and went out of business within the last year. 
 Here you can see the Mini Cooper Dealer, along with Einstein Bagels, GetGo Gas Station, KFC, the Design Center, and the old Ford Model T Assembly Plant looming large in the background.
For the better part of the last twenty years, the Ford Model T Assembly Plant has sat empty. 
For the better part of the last decade, UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh have talked about opening a research center within the building. Large steps have been taken to move forward with this plan, with the demolition of an old addition to the building and work to create a brand new research building on the remainder of the land that sits between the old plant and Centre Ave. 
The building itself looks great, though at this point it is just a Potemkin Facade. Large steps are being taken to make this building and adjacent property a research facility, but the pace in which it is moving leads any casual observer to question if it will ever get completed. Regardless though, huge steps have been taken to beautify and restore the building. The wheels are also clearly in motion to make this campus happen. 
 Note the shadow from the old building addition that was recently demolished. The entire property is cordoned off and a giant crane is in place to work on construction of the new complex.
Note the difference in restoration work between 2014 and 2020. It looks so much better. I am eagerly awaiting the completion of the restoration 


 Note the difference in restoration work between 2014 and 2020 
 A banner showing what the new addition is planned to look like.

Another before and after from 2014 to 2020
Hasty plywood coverings on the rear part of the building in 2014
Versus an active construction scene now. 
 In the days when the Model T plant was bustling, the Shadyside Train Station would be visible in the distance from this shot.
Across the rail line is the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, one of the world's leaders in cancer research. 

And across from the Cancer Center is UPMC Luna Garage
It is an interesting juxtaposition that the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, which conducts research and treats cancer patients is located across Baum Boulevard from a site that was known to work with carcinogens from the 1890s to the 1950s. The old Duquesne Reduction Company / Federal Metals Lead Smelting site was documented by the EPA for Superfund Cleanup, but UPMC moved forward with construction of their Luna Garage for employee parking, directly across the street from UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. The primary portion of the smelter was located on land that is occupied by trees and grass. I am unsure if UPMC backfilled any fresh dirt to the site. The back third or so of the parking garage itself looks like it is directly over where the lead smelter was. 
Lead smelter site and the current UPMC Luna Garage
 The upcoming stretch of Baum Blvd has seen the most change since 2014.
 The only thing that has remained constant is the legendary Ritter's Diner. This is a great American diner that is well worth checking out if you are in the area. 
 In 2014, the apartment building was in the middle of being constructed. This is "Morrow Park City Apartments" which ranges from studio apartments that start at a whopping $1275.00, up to $3680.00 for a three bedroom apartment. As with most of these high end luxury apartment complexes across the city, they received major tax incentives to get built, yet the new housing stock is not affordably priced or subsidized at all for current residents to live within them. The city has not been able to find tenants for these high end apartments, so the prices for them have naturally gone down, while people lower on the socio-economic scale have their rents getting higher, to the point in which they are being squeezed out by price, or physically being forced out through eviction while the land that their buildings are located upon is getting cleared for prospective new development. 

I do not have hard occupancy numbers from this facility, though apartment finder websites show high immediate availability for apartment units within the complex. A quick glance at street view also shows that many of these units are uninhabited. Having been completed for 5 years, they still have a sizable vacancy rate, which shows that these units are way overpriced for the region. This complex was built with tax incentives, meaning that we all chipped in to build this complex. Instead of lowering prices to meet the market price, they let these units remain empty and at a high rental cost. Many luxury complexes like this are located throughout Pittsburgh, and have even higher vacancy rates. Few subsidized buildings for affordable units have been built in that same time period, yet a number of them have been demolished, effectively displacing many individuals and families and making them refugees from their own city. Historically, the same thing has happened since at least the 1950s and 1960s with "urban renewal" projects to build the old Civic Arena, Three Rivers Stadium, Allegheny Commons Mall, Point State Park, and more. Many of those folks ended up living in affordable housing that was built in this area of the city, only to have a similar displacement happen again today. This problem is not a matter of a lack of housing supply, for many of these high end apartment complexes remain empty, rather it is a matter of people being purposefully priced out, cruelly with their own taxpayer money subsidizing the builders of these luxury apartment complexes that sit as large Potemkin Cities.

Across the street from the Morrow Park City Apartments is Cafe Sam. Back in 2014, this building still housed a wonderful local mid scale restaurant. Now in 2020, it has sat abandoned for two years. Yet another local family business that has disappeared over the last few years on Baum Boulevard.
 As I walked back down Baum on my return, I saw this guy heading out from the Cafe Sam Property, salvaging some stuff.
 The Don Allen Dealership in 2014
2020 view with replacement building
In 2014, the venerable Don Allen Dealership building stood in this spot at Liberty Avenue, though its days were numbered. Now it is home to a brand new development that houses several fast food chains, including Five Guys and Dunkin Donuts, with several more storefronts awaiting new tenants. I feel like these new businesses could have easily been housed in a retrofit of the old building, yet they opted to demolish the classic building and put in a new one. As far as a business development, it is good to see this come to the area. As far as a quality of life issue, the jobs provided at these fast food joints could not possibly pay for housing at the nearby Morrow Park City Apartments across the street. It leaves me wondering who has benefitted in our economy in the last few decades and Baum Boulevard is a prime case study for this. Many family businesses that provided life sustaining wages to people and families have shut their doors. The businesses that have taken their place do not provide life sustaining wages. Affordable housing has either been demolished and not replaced, or prices have risen and people have been price hiked out of their own neighborhoods.
 
This Hyatt was under construction when we went through here in 2014.
Morrow Park and the First United Methodist Church are two of the gems of the Baum and Centre Ave corridors. On one hand, we have that huge vacancy rate in luxury apartments in Pittsburgh that are unattainable by the people that live here. On the other hand, just last month a homeless man was found dead in his sleeping bag in the portico of the church, which is located just a few hundred feet from the vacant luxury apartments we just looked at. The city has a homeless problem and a serious shortage of affordable housing. Rather than be aggressive in solving these issues, property owners that took tax subsidies to build their luxury apartments have opted to leave them sitting empty  for years instead of housing those in need. The end result of that is shown in this tragic loss of life that happened a few weeks ago. 
 
Somebody lost an axle! Judging by the amount of bumper fragments in the area, my guess is that it was during an accident, though a pothole may have done it in as well and caused the driver to lose control. 
I believe this Wendy's had just been rebuilt back in 2014. This restaurant is always busy. Next door is Levin Mattress, which occupies an old Blockbuster Video.

 This office/retail building was built in the last few years, and also sits largely vacant. I am seeing echoes back to the housing bubble in 2005 with these vacant hulking luxury buildings that have never seen tenants. 
 I just can't get my bearings here anymore.
This is one of my favorite reuse projects in the city. 
For much more background information on this old Chrysler Dealership, which was designed by Albert Kahn, and the transformation to Aldi, check out this article. 
Instead of opting to tear down this beautiful old car dealership, Aldi instead opted to reuse the first floor showroom area as the footprint for the store, with the upper floor areas that were once used for storage and car repair being utilized as parking decks. This is one of the most brilliant reuse projects that I have ever seen and it also enables many working class people to actually be able to afford groceries. Instead of demolishing this character filled building and putting up a steel and glass box, they did something special with the building and preserved it with modern use. 
This was the site of the first drive through service station. 
Gulf opened the first modern filling station on this site in 1913.
The upcoming complex on the left is a beautiful old Oldsmobile and Buick Dealership.
The showroom is now occupied by the Spinning Plate Gallery, which is awaiting opening their "Really Big Faces" art exhibit, which has unfortunately been delayed thanks to the Corona Virus.
  
This picture shows the business that is most abundant along Baum Avenue, banks. There are two PNC bank branches and a myriad of others. Here are two banks, KeyBank and Bank of America right next to each other, neither of which were present six years ago. 
Here, things deviate a little bit with a Comcast Xfinity store sitting right next to Bank of America. Both Bank of America and Comcast are in the top fifty of most profitable companies in the country, with each posting ten percent growth in the last year and exponential growth over the last ten years. Compare that with the amount of old small family businesses along this same stretch of road that have shuttered and sat abandoned, not just over the last few decades, but over the last few years. Buildings with character have been torn down and replaced with standard, uniform steel and glass boxes that are architecturally bland. Many of these buildings have been built and remain empty, offering retail and residential rents that are not sustainable for the average worker. 
The new residential complexes of Baum Boulevard, and across the city of Pittsburgh, offer rents that exceed the median income for the residents of the areas in which they are located, yet these buildings were subsidized with local government dollars. Meanwhile, not even a block north of this location is a large dirt plot that is about a city block in size. That plot is being used to build a new Whole Foods Market, to replace a store that is not even a quarter mile away. Just five years ago, that land housed hundreds tenants in affordable housing units. Meanwhile, another quarter mile down the road, there are lots of swanky, high-end apartments that sit vacant. Many families that lived in the former Penn Plaza Apartments were unable to secure replacement housing in the neighborhood that they have called home for generations.  

In many ways, Baum Boulevard exemplifies the current state of affairs in America. Old family businesses have disappeared and corporate retail has taken its place.
Two of my absolute favorite buildings in the city are Motor Square Garden and East Liberty Presbyterian. They are located along Baum Boulevard in Pittsburgh's East Liberty Neighborhood. Both are prime examples of Gilded Age architectural opulence and dominate the skyline of Pittsburgh's East End. East Liberty Presbyterian is visible from most points in the city east of North Oakland and the Hill District. They have recently added evening lighting that makes the skyscraper even more stunning.
The copper dome of Motor Square Garden is gorgeous. While the building is primarily used as an office for AAA, it is well worth going in just to see the beauty of the structure. I would love to see the building get reused as an eatery or spot for nightlife. For history and background information on this place that has served as a center for commerce, and even as a sporting/boxing arena, check out this article. 


 On the left you can see the recently renovated East Liberty Branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.


 As opposed to 2014, most of the storefronts along this stretch of Baum Boulevard are occupied, with this one serving as a local branch for Don's Appliances.

This building in particular is one of my absolute favorites. It hosts several stores and offices, in addition to the lovely Lorelai Beer Hall and Cocktail Bar. It easily is our favorite place for cocktails in the city, and it has a terrific tap list. It is Alpine themed and is a very popular and intimate space that reuses the old Werner Building, which has served as the heart of East Liberty since it was constructed at the corner of Highland Avenue and Baum Boulevard.

 I love the detail of the street signs on the Werner Building.
Here is the beautiful Highland Building. It is one of sixteen buildings in the city that were designed by Daniel Burnham, the famous architect that is best known for his creation of the old Chicago skyline. This thirteen story skyscraper sat derelict for twenty years and seemed doomed to getting hit by the wrecking ball. In 2012, work began to refit the tower and rebuild the interior. It is now home to Walnut on Highland, another high end housing complex. I am unsure of the occupancy rate of this complex, but instead of demolishing this classic structure, they opted to refit it, which helps the neighborhood retain its character and be more aesthetically pleasing. For the better part of a century, this complex served as a business hub, with doctor's offices and other businesses occupying its units. It has now been refitted into an apartment building after it had sat derelict for many years. It is great to see that the building is back, but once again, the rents are not affordable for the majority of the people that live in the area, with prices ranging from $1368.00 to $3218.00 a month. At least though, the investment into the formerly endangered building itself likely justifies the high rent prices.

 East Liberty Presbyterian dominates this end of Baum Boulevard, even with the giant Highland Building next to it. 
Looking back down Baum Boulevard from the easternmost end of the road, 1.5 miles from its start. 
Back to Motor Square Garden


 So I have no idea how I missed the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science. 
Of all of the family owned restaurants and businesses to leave Baum Boulevard, the delicious Yinzburgh BBQ has remained a staple. 

I have contemplated doing an updated stroll down Baum for a while now, since the completion of the construction projects that were underway back in 2014. I thought this would be a more upbeat article, but as I looked further into things as I walked around, I noticed that there are frankly more issues along Baum now than there were then. Family and local businesses are faltering even more, the new businesses that are coming in are mostly not bringing living wage jobs, new housing stocks are prohibitively expensive and being kept empty for years while affordable housing stocks are either being removed (demolished) or their prices are getting prohibitively high for residents. The realities along Baum Boulevard provide a glimpse into the state of our current economy and who benefits from it, and the hordes of people that are not. It is a fascinating study of contrasts that are reflective of the overall economy of the country.

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