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New Plan For Riverfronts, 'Pittsburgh’s Front Yard' Postponed

Gene J. Puskar
Two people run along the Allegheny River in this March 21, 2017 photo. A zoning proposal for Pittsburgh's riverfronts aims to balance development with public access and ecological improvements.

A decision on the future of Pittsburgh’s riverfronts has been delayed. The Pittsburgh Planning Commission will wait two weeks to vote on proposed zoning changes due to concerns raised by developers and others.

Over the last two years, Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning has been working on a new framework for the city’s riverfronts: condensing a vast array of zoning categories and variances, setting standards for design and trying to simplify the process of building along the water, all while protecting one of the city’s greatest amenities.

To do that, the planning department has proposed guidelines that include restrictions on how close a project could be to the water, and how tall it could be. A bonus system would allow exceptions in exchange for providing public benefits such as public waterfront access, stormwater management, or the inclusion of public art.

Incentivizing public amenities is a laudable plan, said Ben Kelley of Oxford Development, but the company is concerned about losing the flexibility provided by the current system.

“We’ve worked collaboratively with the city of Pittsburgh for years,” he said, noting that Oxford has invested more than $100 million over the last five years in its 3 Crossings project in the Strip District. “We just don’t want to be too constrained and too prescriptive with the design elements in these developments.”

Kelley stressed that the company is eager to continue an open dialogue about the future of the city’s riverfronts, but said Oxford would like the Planning Department to evaluate how the proposed changes could impact real life developments, “to move it from the theoretical.” Oxford has been working on site planning for a second phase of development at 3 Crossings that could be impacted by the proposed changes.

Vivien Li understands those concerns. She is president and CEO of the nonprofit Riverlife, which promotes Pittsburgh’s riverfronts, and often works closely with developers.

“There’s always a good back and forth,” she said. “What had once been our backyard is now Pittsburgh’s front yard. What had been our dumping grounds and totally industrial uses and steel mills has been transformed over the last two decades into vibrant trails, places where people want to live and work and play.”

Li is optimistic that comprehensive zoning will ease the process of finding a balance between ecological improvement and redevelopment by helping owners know what to expect. Though, “any time you adopt a new regulation, there will be some who have been operating or planning for a certain length of time who will be caught between the old and the new.”

The planning department did not return a request for comment.

The Planning Commission will meet again on March 6 to vote whether or not to recommend the riverfront zoning proposal to City Council for consideration.