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How The Future Of Pittsburgh's Riverfronts Could Be Decided By Zoning

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
For decades it was difficult to access Pittsburgh’s rivers. While that’s changing, new riverfront zoning legislation aims to ensure residents can be on the water. A project to connect the Smithfield Street Bridge to the Mon Wharf is just one example. ";s:

At a public hearing Tuesday, many residents threw their support behind a plan to permanently rezone the city's waterfronts, while others expressed concern over how the new zoning could affect their residences or businesses. 

The meeting was the first to gather public feedback since the Pittsburgh Planning Commission recommended the riverfront zoning plan to City Council in March

While the legislation, called the “RIV,” has been in the works for the last two years, Department of City Planning director Ray Gastil said reimagining the city’s riverfronts has been a much longer process, going back at least 30 years.

“Visions, plans, projects,” he said. “We’ve moved from seeing the riverfronts as the city’s backyard, an afterthought, bad conscience, even. And now see it as a symbol of the city and opportunity.”

The RIV aims to juggle a number of different goals, from restoring the ecological health of the 35 riverfront miles to protecting water-dependent industries’ use of the rivers, as well as encouraging new development while maintaining residents’ access to and views of the rivers.

Gastil acknowledged that zoning may not seem like the most important planning tool.

“But [it] really is how cities translate vision, intentions, good intentions, best practices into an approach that is consistent, sustainable and meaningful for the future of Pittsburgh.”

Project manager Andrea Lavin Kossis said city officials want to be sure they’re providing clear guidelines to all users.

“People want to be along the rivers, and the RIV is going to help them get there and enjoy it,” she said.

A number of speakers expressed worry about how the RIV might affect their individual properties. Others said they were concerned the legislation could be too prescriptive. As written, the RIV could have a chilling effect on economic development, said David Weisberg, president of NAIOP Pittsburgh, a regional association of commercial developers, owners and investors.

“Members are concerned with a wide range of items. These concerns include but are not limited to the following: parking limits, setback requirements, mandated view corridors, height restrictions and building length.”

Some reservations seemed to be about the details rather than wholesale opposition.

Without naming specific items, Ben Kelly, development manager for Oxford Development, urged council not to greenlight a plan that could endanger the riverfront renaissance.

“We believe that quality public spaces and access to amenities, they matter,” he said. “Good urbanism is just good for business.”

Many speakers supported the RIV and called on council to do the same in their eventual vote.

“This is a monumental piece of legislation,” said Stacey Vernallis, board president for nonprofit Friends of the Riverfront. She called the rivers the city’s greatest civic asset, and protecting them “the greatest legacy this council could give to the city.”

A City Council vote on the legislation has not yet been scheduled.