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Rezoning Pittsburgh’s Riverfronts To Bring More Activity To Water’s Edge

Gene J. Puskar

Pittsburgh’s riverfronts host a vast range of activity: industrial, residential and recreational. That diversity lends vitality to the 35 miles of riverfront along the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, but it’s bedeviling for zoning, said Riverfront Development Coordinator Andrea Lavin Kossis.

“The zoning that already exists isn’t always doing a great job with the different kinds of developments that are coming these days," she said. 

After more than two years of work, Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning is almost ready to submit draft language to rezone the banks of the city’s rivers. Public meetings are being held this week to collect public input.

Planning anticipates more waterfront amenities, things like restaurants or trails, but the existing zoning was crafted when the primary activity on the riverfronts was industrial. While the department wants to protect existing industrial operations, they also want to create new guidelines that protect communities, said Lavin Kossis.

“That makes it easier to work with developers ... by providing new guidelines for community input, for doing parking studies, for how they treat the riverfront,” she said.

Language for the newly created "RIV District," which is still being honed, outlines five sub-districts: mixed residential, where single attached family homes or multi-family units are built; mixed-use in places where retail may mingle with office and residential space; the North Shore; general industrial, where businesses need river access to function or thrive; and industrial mixed use, in places where industrial or tech spaces may incorporate office and residential space.

“We want to make sure that new developments coming in embrace the riverfront instead of turning their back on it so that we can have a more enjoyable experience for people,” said Lavin Kossis.

The zoning language requires developers to maintain “view corridors,” spaces in between buildings that allow views of the river, even if the public can’t physically access the rivers. In other places, physical access corridors will exist. Developers will be required to landscape using native or naturalized plants and parking will be limited. Buildings in the RIV District are restricted to a maximum height of 45 feet with a minimum 125 foot-setback from river’s edge.

A developer may appeal for exceptions, but that would trigger a set of requirements called “bonus actions”: affordable housing, stormwater management, public amenities, ecological improvements, mobility improvements such as car sharing or bike share and public art.

Pittsburgh’s waterfronts have long been inaccessible, and the zoning changes will rectify that, said North Oakland resident Goldie Edwards at a public meeting Tuesday evening.

“I just think it will bring people together, it’ll bring people to the riverfront,” she said. Edwards originally hails from New Zealand, and so was accustomed to having access to the water. “It makes people feel that they’re out of their little pocket of their house and their neighbors’. It’s like going to the countryside.”

Two more public meetings will be held this week, and Lavin Kossis encouraged people to contact her with their input throughout January. She anticipated draft language will be presented to the Planning Commission in February before going to a council hearing in March.