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City Council to Hold Public Hearing on Buncher Development

Pittsburgh City Council voted Wednesday to hold a series of meetings, some public, on a mixed-use redevelopment project planned for the Strip District. The lone "no" vote was from Councilman Patrick Dowd.

Council members will decide whether they believe the developer, the Buncher Company, has met the criteria to create a special zoning district along the south bank of the Allegheny River. The proposed "Riverfront Landing" district would stretch from the riverbank to Smallman Street between the Veterans Bridge and 21st Street.

Leading up to a vote on the proposal, council will hold a private executive session, a post-agenda meeting, and a public hearing, likely to be scheduled in that order.

According to Councilman Dowd, there are two major criteria for creating a special zoning district: first, the proposed district must be at least 15 acres; second, one entity must own 100% of the land.

Dowd said the plot of land in question is more than 15 acres, but he argued that Buncher does not own all the land. He said the Allegheny Valley Railroad Company has an easement running through the property, a claim that Dowd said was confirmed by the federal Surface Transportation Board in April 2010. Dowd said the STB ruling still stands, although Buncher has appealed the decision.

"There's a dispute about the existence of the easement. The order stands that the rail company owns the easement. Buncher's disputing that," said Dowd. "That will get tied up in courts and boards and will be resolved at some point, but once that's resolved, if the easement does in fact exist, then there's a dispute as to how big or how wide the easement is, and that has to go through Pennsylvania courts."

In the meantime, Dowd argued, it would be improper for City Council to consider creating the Riverfront Landing zoning district.

The zoning change is one piece of a proposed regulatory framework to accomodate the Buncher project. The Ravenstahl administration has also written a bill to provide the company with a $50 million Tax Increment Financing district, which would essentially provide Buncher with the largest public subsidy in Pittsburgh's history. Councilman Dowd has refused to introduce that bill to Council through his committee, saying he'd like to know first how the money would be spent.

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith criticized Dowd for his actions regarding the Buncher development.

"I realize you [Dowd] want to paint the administration as mismanaged and poor leadership and all that stuff. That might be your ultimate goal," said Kail-Smith. "I personally want to see what's in the best interests for the residents, and I want to get this done."

Council did not immediately set dates for the post-agenda meeting or the public hearing on the Buncher development.