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July 23, 1998

University housing plan runs into opposition from local residents.

The University's long-range housing strategy met opposition, both verbal and legal, before two city commissions this month. Both the City Planning Commission and the Zoning Board of Pittsburgh have delayed votes on Pitt's housing-related requests. The University is seeking approval for the first phase of its comprehensive plan to increase undergraduate student housing. The plan features construction of a $5.3 million apartment complex on University-owned property between South Bouquet Street and Oakland Avenue. Pitt also plans to raze Pennsylvania Hall and is requesting permission to build a 64-car parking garage and tennis courts on the site.

On July 14, the planning commission heard arguments regarding the proposed South Bouquet Street-Oakland Avenue apartment complex, which, if approved, will house 192 students beginning in September 1999 and could be expanded to house about 800 by 2001. Currently, the University can house 5,005 undergraduates on campus. Oakland residents raised concerns about the effect of the increased student population on parking, congestion, noise, litter and access to sunlight for neighbors. Regarding the Pennsylvania Hall site, John Murdoch of Preservation Pittsburgh argued against demolishing the 88-year-old building because it was designed by noted architect Henry Hornbostel. He suggested instead that it be renovated or converted to student housing.

Pitt previously had secured clearance from the Historic Review Commission to demolish the building.

The planning commission decided to delay the votes on both issues until its next meeting, scheduled for July 28. At the July 16 zoning board hearing, Marshall Goodwin, representing the Oakland Community Council, raised some points about the garden-style apartment complex's design, which has the four-story buildings facing a central courtyard.

"These buildings will tower over others, especially on the Oakland Avenue side. And the design on that side looks like a wall that acts as a barrier; it creates a feeling of unfriendliness," he said. Ana Guzman, associate vice chancellor for Facilities Management, replied that the design of the three 48-unit buildings was intended to encourage students to congregate in the courtyard on the premises, rather than on the surrounding streets. Pitt officials were requesting housing variances — height, set-back (distance from the curb) and side (proximity to existing buildings) — to the proposed buildings, which would be one to two stories higher, about 15 feet closer to the curb, and about 15 feet closer to neighboring buildings than the housing code permits. The site is designated as an R4 (Multi-Family Residential) zone. But a sticking point was raised over the fact that Pitt plans to house four students per unit instead of the zoning code's maximum of three. Jonathan Robison, who represents the Bellefield Citizens Organization, argued that the University was trying to seek a non-construction-related variance that is inappropriate under the "conditional use" exemption. "Pitt is trying to have it both ways," Robison said. "They're applying under conditional use, which applies to construction [variances]. But they're putting in a residence, call it what you will, and under the code it's a maximum of three [residents per apartment unit]." Zoning board chair Regis Murrin replied, "Your argument is not without merit." And board member Clifford Levine advised Pitt officials: "We have to be careful here. You don't want to 'spit in the wind.' If you apply [under conditional use variance] and he appeals, a judge could take a non-supporting view." Murrin then asked Pitt's representatives to prepare a document further specifying their request vis-a-vis the residential code. "You can submit any cases to back up your request," he said. "Then, we send a copy to Mr. Robison and he has 10 days to file a brief." "Which I will do," Robison said.

Murrin then ended the hearing somewhat abruptly. No timeframe for a ruling has been scheduled. The zoning board meets every Thursday.

If Pitt gets the okay from the planning and zoning commissions, the projects move to Pittsburgh City Council, which also must approve the plans.

–Peter Hart

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