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Pittsburgh Planning Commission Commends And Questions Plans For The Lower Hill

A rendering of the 26-story office tower that developers hope will anchor construction on the Lower Hill.

During Tuesday’s Pittsburgh Planning Commission meeting, the developers of Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill presented plans for what will likely be the first project on the 28-acre site. The Pittsburgh Penguins and their partners proposed a 26-story office tower that will be anchored by First National Bank and a nearby green space.

While the bulk of the presentation focused on design plans, it began with a 35-minute summary of history and an explanation of how the development group plans to reinvest in the Greater Hill District.

“For us to succeed as a project ... in the Lower Hill, the Middle and Upper Hill must succeed economically as well,” said Chris Buccini co-president of the Buccini/Pollin Group. The company is the lead developer for two-thirds of the Lower Hill.

The developer laid out a series of promises, including a $10 million contribution to stabilize housing in the Hill District.

The presentation followed two public meetings in March in which community members raised concerns that many of the commitments stem from public money or promises made at other times, and that the promises also fall short of a 2014 signed agreement called the Community Collaboration and Implementation Plan.

Toward the end of Tuesday's briefing, commissioner LaShawn Burton-Faulk asked the development team to explain exactly how the First National Bank tower development would help build wealth in the Greater Hill District, especially if it were to be the only building to come to fruition on the site.

“It’s a shiny, pretty building," Burton-Faulk said. "But what about the footprints in the sand for folks of color or the socioeconomically disadvantaged in the future?”

Kevin Acklin, chief operating officer for the Pittsburgh Penguins, said it’s appropriate to have concerns about what’s coming next, but said it’s definitely not the plan to build just the FNB tower.

“While we’re asking for some trust to let us get started with this first phase, we are committed to highest levels of equity this city ever seen,” he said.

Commissioners had several questions about the future of Wylie Avenue. In a 2014 preliminary land development plan, the avenue is shown running through the site. Current plans do not show the street there, although the developers said its fate may depend on the final designs of other parcels.

Other queries touched on transit, how pedestrians will cross busy Washington Avenue, transit, and concerns about the selection of building materials.

Commissioner Christine Mondor, as she summed up the discussion for the minutes, said the documentation presented by the developers led her to believe that they have done a good job communicating with the community. But she added that she will continue to look at several different facets of equity, including what safeguards there will be for residents in the area as property values rise. She urged the developers to think most of the people for whom the Hill is home, rather than as a place to invest or build a business.

Mondor also noted that the Hill Community Development Corporation had sent a letter enumerating many concerns about the project. She said that developers, who also received the letter, would want to give it further examination.

The developers must come back to the commission for a hearing and vote on their plan. It was not clear Tuesday when that would take place.