Divisions are clear over future of Oakland development


June was a very significant month when it comes to determining the future of Oakland, with newly approved zoning, discussions on the long-awaited Oakland Plan, new details on a bus rapid transit system and groundbreaking for a new UPMC hospital on Fifth Avenue.

The discussions around the Oakland Plan and Walnut Capital’s Oakland Crossings project have made it clear that the neighborhood where Pitt resides is a house divided. And healing the divisions between those who want more dense development and those who want to preserve traditional neighborhoods won’t be easy.

Jamie Ducar, executive director of the engaged campus in Pitt’s Office of Engagement and Community Affairs, speaking at a city Planning Commission hearing on the Oakland Plan summed it up: “This is an incredibly important time for the historic neighborhood of Oakland and we recognize how difficult a task it is to develop a neighborhood plan for a community as dynamic and as vibrant as Oakland. The mix of stakeholders, organizations and individuals involved makes this plan different than any other neighborhood.”

Oakland Plan discussions

At its June 14 meeting, the Planning Commission approved the Oakland Plan, an outline for developing the neighborhood over the next 10 years, and voted to recommend a series of zoning changes to City Council. The zoning measures set up three new base districts for different areas of Oakland that allow for varying degrees of commercial and residential use.

Elana Zaitsoff, a South Oakland resident and vice president of the Oakcliffe Community Group, and others spoke out against the Oakland Plan, particularly the rezoning that allows for much taller buildings. “Buildings 185 or 210 feet high and 400 feet long do not belong adjacent to residential areas, as they will become canyons or walled in,” Zaitsoff said. “The recent Walnut Capital plan for the Quality Inn site bears out that developers will build as large as they can.”

At the same meeting, Connor Scanlon, a Pitt student and Oakland resident, said, “I think that low height limits … in a lot of central Oakland are incongruent with the ability for there to be equitable, diverse development in the future.” He said he’d like to make Oakland his permanent home but worries that there will continue to not be enough housing for students and residents.

Others chimed in on both sides at the hearing and in comments sent to the commission. The planning department said it received about 800 public comments concerning the Oakland Plan and about 150 regarding zoning. About 40 percent highlighted concerns with the plan or suggested changes and another 25 percent were “generally” positive or supportive. Most of the rest were asking questions.

Ducar told the commission that, “The Oakland Plan also aligns with the vision laid out in the University Master Plan. The strategies and programs in this plan are very similar to strategies that the University has either committed to or that we’ve already begun to put in place.”

Wanda Wilson, executive director of the Oakland Planning and Development Corp., said her group was pleased with the inclusionary zoning district in the plan — which would allow for a wide range of commercial uses and multi-unit residential housing only if all units are affordable or if residential use makes up no more than half of the property’s gross square footage. But she said the plan didn’t incorporate enough resident input and, “a lot of the goals around equitable development have missed the mark.”

She also complained that the plan lacked enough focus on historic preservation. “A lot of the zoning changes are going to result in massive amounts of demolition, I believe. And so it’s sort of inconsistent with the idea of historic preservation and preserving neighborhood character.”

Wilson said that the Halket Street zoning was changed to Urban Center at the last minute, which allows for buildings up to 185 feet. She said residents are concerned about how those heights will compare to nearby Coltart Street.

Mike Madden of the Pittsburgh Innovation District said his group has very different complaints about the Oakland Plan. “Our organization believes the current state of the Oakland neighborhood plan does not provide the framework to help progress Oakland as well as it can.”

He said the group wants a vision statement that is “more aspirational, progressive, bold, and one that reflects the unrivaled potential of Oakland and its innovation district,” and a zoning map that “supports the growth of Pittsburgh’s innovation economy.” This would include increased building heights and reduced setbacks so “developers can achieve realistic building dimensions along Fifth and Forbes.” His thoughts were echoed by Georgia Petropoulos, leader of the Oakland Business Improvement District.

Although the commissioners approved the plan and zoning, they expressed reservations about  buildings that are 400 feet long and asked planning staff to provide more information to City Council, which must approve all zoning changes, to show there is no detrimental effect to the building heights allowed near Coltart Street. They also asked the plan’s steering committee to revise its vision statement.

Commissioner Sabina Deitrick, who is a professor in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said it’s disappointing to get to this late stage in developing a 10-year plan and have major community-based organizations and residents come out against it.

“A community plan should be supported wholeheartedly by the community,” Deitrick said before abstaining to vote on the Oakland Plan and voting against the zoning changes. “There’s always going to be disagreement, but this is a community that’s done a plan for 40 years.”

Oakland Crossings zoning approved

On June 28, Pittsburgh City Council approved a zoning change that will allow Walnut Capital to proceed with the first phase of its Oakland Crossings project — a 33,000-square-foot grocery store and 426-unit apartment building at the former Quality Inn site owned by Pitt on the Boulevard of the Allies. 

The project has been the subject of debate for the past year.  Some Oakland residents objected to how the project was first proposed. Former Mayor Bill Peduto advanced the plan straight to City Council instead of going through the normal planning process. Others objected to proposed building heights and the lack of equitable housing. New Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey negotiated a compromise earlier this year.

The city will host a joint development activities meeting at 5:30 p.m. July 11 via Zoom, where Walnut Capital and Pittsburgh-based Strada Architecture will present their plans for the Quality Inn site (also known as Parcel A) to the public. The plan also calls for an integrated 438-space parking garage and additional ground floor retail. Find out more about the meeting here. The final project will need to be approved by the city Planning Commission.

Walnut Capital hopes to begin construction by the end of the year or early next year. The zoning change approved by council creates a new Urban Center Mixed-Use zoning classification that covers the 13 acres that Walnut Capital wants to develop.

The revised project includes building multi-unit apartment buildings on Halket Street, and developing the Quality Inn and Isaly sites along the Boulevard of the Allies. McKee Place and Louisa Street, along with Zulema Park, were removed from the zoning district. Walnut Capital also agreed to make at least 10 percent of the units affordable to households at or below 50 percent of the area median income for a minimum of 35 years.

The zoning change will allow for a base height of 65 feet along Halket Street. But with bonuses, Walnut Capital can build as high as 120 feet north of Louisa Street toward Forbes Avenue and to 185 feet south of Louisa toward the boulevard. At the Isaly’s site, the developer is limited to 85 feet bordering Niagara Street but can go as high as 185 feet at the back of the site.

Council approved the zoning change by an 8-1 vote, including an an amendment that extended the building length limit from 400 feet to 425 feet for a grocery store. Walnut Capital president Todd Reidbord told council that the extra space was needed for loading and unloading purposes, according to the Post-Gazette.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 724-244-4042.


Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.

Follow the University Times on Twitter and Facebook.