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April 1, 1999

Community group asks University to postpone razing of two buildings

Community group asks University to postpone razing of two buildings

At a crowded City Planning Commission hearing March 23, about a dozen speakers urged the commission to postpone the razing of two buildings on the site of a University housing project.

Most of the arguments came from officials and clients of People's Oakland, a social service agency located in two Pitt-owned houses on Oakland Avenue. The agency is asking for a year's extension to have time to relocate. The University has asked People's Oakland and tenants of six other buildings to vacate by May 15. The other six buildings house mainly students with expiring leases, University officials said.

People's Oakland executive director Maureen Cook essentially endorsed Pitt's plan for the site, Phase II of the Bouquet Gardens housing project. But she did so with the proviso that her agency be given more time in its current location, 231 and 233 Oakland Avenue.

Cook also contended that Pitt gave the group too little notice to vacate. "Yes, we knew this was coming," Cook said. "But we were surprised to hear in February that we had to move out by May 15."

She said the requested one-year extension is crucial to the health of many people who use the organization's services. At the planning commission hearing, several clients of People's Oakland related how important the agency was to their well-being.

Cook said that a fund-raising campaign to find a new home for People's Oakland has been underway since 1995, but is not complete.

University officials have set a June 1 construction date for the housing project to meet an August 2000 completion date. Construction of phase I of the project is underway, with a target completion date of Aug. 1, 1999. Phase II will add five buildings and 304 beds in garden-style apartments on the Oakland Avenue/South Bouquet Street/Sennott Street property. The estimated cost of the project is $9.2 million.

Eli Shorak, Office of the Assistant Chancellor, testified that Pitt was looking for a creative solution to help People's Oakland. He said the University offered a building on Atwood Street to the agency free-of-charge last December. Shorak said he had only learned of the group's objections on March 19, four days before the hearing. The University will find something suitable, he said.

"We're not the 400-pound gorilla here. Honestly, I take offense [at that perception]. We have been working with the community for creative solutions to this. We feel People's Oakland is extremely important. The University has provided low-rent space [to the agency in their current location] for years."

Donating of property on Atwood was thought to be the perfect solution, Shorak said.

"We made the offer on Dec. 9. All of sudden, we hear: 'It's not going to work.' You say what you need is [a suitable] space — well, I will find it. It's just that I wasn't working on that up to now." Shorak said he had been out that morning looking at possible sites.

Cook said the Atwood Street property was inadequate because of the amount of repairs needed to make it suitable for the agency. She told the University Times that People's Oakland will not comment publicly until the planning commission next hears arguments on the matter.

Planning commission chair Thomas Armstrong urged the parties to come to an understanding. He said the commission would wait until its April 20 meeting to address the issue. The planning commission meets bi-weekly.

Commissioner Clifford Levine said he was impressed with the testimonials of People's Oakland clients. But he asked, "How does the jurisdiction of the planning commission fit, when [People's Oakland] is really a tenant on University property?" Levine said the commission views Pitt's request from a construction and neighborhood-fit point of view, rather than as a landlord-tenant issue.

Pitt also was seeking permission from the planning commission to construct the Multi-Purpose Academic Complex (MPAC) in the block just north of the student housing project.

MPAC is targeted to house the College of Business Administration, the psychology and computer science departments, a law school clinic, a police mini-station, first-floor retail space facing Forbes Avenue, and public parking for about 90 cars. The facility, if approved, will cover about 31,500 square feet. The projected cost is $32.4 million and the project is expected to take 24-27 months from ground-breaking, according to the Facilities Management 10-year plan.

The commission could vote on Pitt's requests at the April 20 meeting. The University also will need approval from Pittsburgh City Council for both projects. –Peter Hart

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