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Development & Transportation

Pittsburgh Planning Commission Advances Lower Hill Development After Five-Hour Public Hearing

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A rendering of the proposed First National Bank tower and nearby green space.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and their lead developer, the Buccini / Pollin Group or BPG, can move forward with plans to build a 26-story office tower in the Lower Hill, the Planning Commission decided on Tuesday. During the five-hour public hearing, 10 people spoke in support of the $230 million project, even as they noted that more work must be done to ensure the project benefits the Greater Hill District.

The commission conditioned its unanimous approval of the tower, to be anchored by First National Bank, on the developers’ delivery on promises made to the neighborhood. It was left unclear who would define how that performance would be evaluated, but the developers must report back on their progress.

Chairperson Christine Mondor said the commission should be able to ensure “that the accountability is there, and that it improves,” she said.

Mondor suggested the stipulation after members spent time trying to understand the extent to which the commission’s vote needed to account for ongoing negotiations between the community and the developers on a proposed $45 million reinvestment agreement.

The proposal includes financial commitments from First National Bank to support small businesses and real estate projects, $3 million for housing stabilization, a $5 million Opportunity Zone fund, $7.5 million for the Greater Hill District Reinvestment Fund and other plans to support workforce development.

But Bill Sittig, the developers’ lawyer, said the details of that agreement went beyond the commission’s regulatory purview.

“That’s not a document the Planning Commission … should enforce,” he said.

Everyone agrees development on the Lower Hill must provide clear benefit to the Middle and Upper Hill. The developer agreed to be bound by a 2014 contract called the Community Collaboration and Implementation Plan, or CCIP. That document details seven focus areas that any development should support, ranging from wealth-building and homeownership initiatives to workforce development.

However, there’s disagreement about whether the reinvestment plan tied to the office tower development fulfills the CCIP.

Measuring compliance with the CCIP falls to the Development Review Panel, or DRP, a community body composed of representatives from six different organizations in the Hill District.

DRP member Daniel Klein said during Tuesday’s hearing that everyone wants the project to happen, however, he said plans for the tower have yet to earn a passing grade from the process.

“This proposal just does not meet the requirements and that’s why they keep failing,” he said.

The results of the most recent review weren’t available Tuesday night, but developers question the objectivity of that review. Bomani Howze is a vice president with BPG and a Hill District resident. He said he respects the DRP, however, there needs to be “a very serious conversation about the integrity of that process.”

During his presentation BPG co-founder Chris Buccini said his team, which includes equity partner Clay Cove Capital, can deliver the best community reinvestment plan in America.

“We humbly request that [the Planning Commission] see this as a viable project that invests in humans and people even more than buildings,” he said.

However, Marimba Milliones, head of the Hill Community Development Corporation, said the proposed term sheet does not yet fulfill the requirements of the CCIP. She asked the commission to condition its approval on a signed community reinvestment plan.

Both parties have said they spent the weekend and the early part of this week trying to cross the finish line on a deal.

City Councilor Daniel Lavelle, who represents the neighborhood, said there’s still work to be done, but said it would be “immoral and unjust” to delay approval.

“There are a lot of pieces on the table, a lot of agreements that need to be reached,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you can always reach them immediately by the time you want to take a vote.”

He and many others talked about how the development is a catalyst that will bring “long overdue” investment to the Hill District.

It will next go to the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Allegheny County Sports and Exhibition Authority, which own the land.