By SUSAN JONES
The Pittsburgh Planning Commission once again this week delayed taking up a zoning change request that developer Walnut Capital says it needs to proceed with its ambitious Oakland Crossings project.
After taking office in early January, incoming Mayor Ed Gainey requested a 30-day continuance on a proposed zoning ordinance so he could get input from community members. Gainey participated in a meeting of the Oakland Planning and Development Corp. on Jan. 25 and held a separate listening session on Feb. 2.
The change would create a new zoning subdistrict that would include all the areas in Walnut Capital’s 17-acre planned development, on McKee Place, Louise Street, Halket Street and the Boulevard of the Allies. New, taller housing units would replace the single-family homes that now house mostly groups of students.
Walnut Capital’s stated goal is to increase the density of permanent, non-student residents in Oakland to make it a more vibrant neighborhood.
The planning commission was scheduled to take up the zoning change at its Feb. 8 meeting, but has continued discussion on the matter for another 30 days at the request of Gainey. In a news release about the continuance, Gainey said he is requesting that Walnut Capital coordinate with the mayor’s office and Department of City Planning “on a process that includes a thorough review of the development plan through a phased approach as outlined in the Oakland Plan.”
The Oakland Plan is a 10-year vision for the neighborhood created by community groups in a process endorsed by the city that is now in the draft phase. Community groups have said the zoning change should not be approved until the completion of the Oakland Plan, which is expected soon.
In announcing the delay, Gainey said: “Long-standing issues of displacement and inequity have become more acute during this time of public health and economic crises. For that reason, it is important that we consider this zoning ordinance in a thoughtful and deliberate manner through a phased approach. My administration will continue to advocate for a solution that prioritizes equitable development, inclusionary zoning, food access and aligns with the priorities in the Oakland Plan. It is my hope that all partners involved remain committed to achieving our goal of creating a more affordable and equitable Pittsburgh.”
Where does Pitt stand?
Pitt has an obvious interest in the development, which is in an area close to campus that is popular for student housing. The University also is working with Walnut Capital on a couple projects near the planned development, such as transforming the Pitt-owned Quality Inn site on the Boulevard of the Allies into non-student housing with a grocery store. Pitt also is buying property along Bates Street where Walnut Capital tore down several decrepit townhouses last year.
“We certainly are working with Walnut because some of the parcels that are over there are owned by Pitt,” Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in an interview with the University Times on Jan. 31. “We’ve also been an active participant in the Oakland planning process. We’ve shared our institutional master planning with the community. And we work directly with a number of community organizations, and there are more than one.”
The Oakland Planning and Development Corp., in particular, has raised several objections to the Walnut Capital plan, including the lack of provisions for affordable housing and the unusual route the zoning change proposal took through former Mayor Bill Peduto’s office directly to City Council.
“I really think it’s dangerous to start trying to say who’s on whose team,” Gallagher said. “This is that stage in the process where the active debates are happening and where decisions and pros and cons are being hammered out. We certainly want to be a productive participant in that process, and that includes whether it’s as a partner on the development side, but it also means as a member of the community. … And many of our faculty and staff are parts of this neighborhood as well.”
Gallagher praised Mayor Gainey’s efforts to make sure the project meets the needs of the community. “Equitable development, walk-to-work housing, affordable housing and food availability are important, and I think Mayor Gainey’s efforts to make sure those improvements are robust can be applauded.
“I actually think this kind of crescendo that you get as some of the decisions start coming in is a natural part of the process,” Gallagher said. “And we think it’s actually a healthy part of the process. This is where concerns get identified — is the balance right, are the priorities right? But in the end, some decisions have to be made, and we hope, at some point, this concludes in a way that is responsive to creating an Oakland that is equitable and works for everybody.”
In a follow-up email, Gallagher noted that Oakland is one of the main economic zones of the entire state. “The amount of engagement around Oakland and Oakland-related development and planning is high,” he said. “The sleepy old days where nothing is happening in Pittsburgh are going away. There are, of course, different viewpoints. There always will be. But we will continue to be a good partner — these are our neighbors and that doesn’t change.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-244-4042.
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