New development puts Kelly Strayhorn Theater in jeopardy

PITTSBURGH — Penn Avenue may look a lot different, but one thing remains the same: the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. Community members want it to stay that way.

“It’s unrecognizable, it’s unrecognizable,” said La’Tasha D. Mayes, a resident and founder of New Voices for Reproductive Justice.

Mayes said East Liberty underwent a lot of changes.

“We cannot develop the soul out of East Liberty,” said Mayes.

And she shared that was her motivation for speaking out during Tuesday’s Commission Planning Meeting, to protect what she says is a staple of culture–the Kelly Strayhorn Theatre.

“What can we name in East Liberty or in the city that has a Black person’s name on it?” asked Mayes.

The theatre dates to the early 1900s and was renamed in 2001 to honor Gene Kelly and Billy Strayhorn – Strayhorn, a famous Black composer.

“There’s so much that the Kelly Strayhorn [Theatre] does in the community across all ages, across all races, genders and backgrounds,” said Mayes.

But in 2020, The McKnight Realty Partners purchased the block for 8.3 million and announced plans to build a six-story, mixed-use development.

“On this block here, really nothing has been done,” said longtime business owner, Sam Arabia, owner of Sam’s Shoes.

Arabia whose store has been in East Liberty for more than 60 years, said he wants new life on the block to help with the business but said high-end apartments could put that in jeopardy.

“We are waiting to see because we need more affordable income,” said Arabia.

Arabia said he wants a community presence with residents who shop in-person and not online.

Arabia, like Mayes, wants to see a thriving Penn Avenue.

The lease for the theatre will be continued until 2029, so it should be open for the next several years.

“If we want to be intentional about community, you have to deal with your main stakeholder, the Kelly Strayhorn Theatre,” Mayes said.

Pittsburgh Planning Commission voted to delay the vote, hoping that developers and the Kelly Strayhorn Theatre can agree.