By SUSAN JONES
The Oakland Crossings project from Walnut Capital came before the Pittsburgh Planning Commission for a briefing last week, after taking the circuitous and unusual route from the office of Mayor Bill Peduto to City Council and then to the planning board.
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The briefing was specifically about Walnut Capital’s request for a new zoning subdistrict that would include the approximately 17-acre area it wants to develop on McKee Place, Louise Street, Halket Street and the Boulevard of the Allies.
The developer gave a lengthy presentation on how the project fits with an as-yet-unseen Oakland Plan being developed by neighborhood groups and why it needs the zoning change. Details of the 10-year Oakland master plan, which has been in the works for two years, are set to be released in early 2022.
“We have not yet been briefed on the Oakland Plan, so we’re kind of relying on your interpretation of that plan,” Planning Commission Chairwoman Christine Mondor said.
After the briefing, representatives of Walnut Capital faced nearly an hour and a half of questioning by the commissioners on issues surrounding building height, affordable housing and the circumnavigated planning process.
“I’m befuddled just that a mayor would sidestep his own Planning Department,” said Commissioner Sabina Deitrick, who also is an associate professor in Pitt’s Graduate School of International and Public Affairs. “Coming in with a zoning change from a developer who’s been working with a team internally, it sounds like it’s old-timey planning, long before we had a citizen ladder of citizens’ participation.”
“We value the staff of the city planning department and DOMI (Department of Mobility and Infrastructure),” said commissioner Becky Mingo. “When I’m looking at these details there are a lot of inconsistencies … with our current zoning text. Also, there is a level of review from other departments that might be important as well.”
Walnut Capital held its own community meetings and attended more than 40 others, representatives said. The company has said that its proposal meets the community’s stated goals of bringing in a grocery and more housing for full-time residents rather than students.
The plan has met resistance from the Oakland Planning and Development Corp., but has gotten approval from the Oakland Business Improvement District.
Dan Gilman, Peduto’s chief of staff, defended the way the project came about. He said they are “respectful of the master plan process” but all development shouldn’t be put on pause during that process.
Walnut Capital representatives said they hope to have the zoning change in place by January and then start immediately afterward on the first phase, which would be converting the Quality Inn site into non-student housing and a grocery store. Pitt owns the site on the Boulevard of the Allies and is partnering with Walnut Capital to develop it.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-244-4042.
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