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Skeptics pan Oakland development proposal, ask Pittsburgh City Council for pause

Attorney Jonathan Kamin says Walnut Capital's 17-acre "Oakland Crossing" project should be discussed "on the merits." Critics say the company is trying to do an end-run around Oakland's efforts to chart its own future.
Attorney Jonathan Kamin says Walnut Capital's 17-acre "Oakland Crossing" project should be discussed "on the merits." Critics say the company is trying to do an end-run around Oakland's efforts to chart its own future.

Residents of Oakland are asking Pittsburgh City Council to put an ambitious redevelopment on hold, arguing that backers are trying to rush approval on the project — before Oakland can chart a future that would make such development obsolete.

“The Oakland community deserves effective community process,” Wanda Wilson, the executive director of the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, told council Tuesday at a public hearing. “The process of this bill being introduced is fundamentally wrong. It’s a threat to the public interest for every single city resident.”

Called “Oakland Crossings,” the project is being proposed by Walnut Capital, one of the city’s highest-profile developers. Walnut’s plan encompasses 17 acres near the Boulevard of the Allies and UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital and would feature up to 1,000 units of residential housing along with a grocery store, new green space and an elevated pedestrian bridge over the Boulevard. The company says it would generate 4,000 construction jobs.

But Oakland residents and other skeptics criticized the proposal heavily during the hour-and-a-half-long council hearing Tuesday. For one thing, the vision includes multi-story buildings that could loom over homes on Coltart Avenue, which lies sandwiched between the development intended on McKee Place and Halket Street. More broadly, skeptics say Walnut Capital drafted its plan without public input — and is trying to usher it through with little public oversight.

Council is weighing a bill to refer the development proposal to the city’s Planning Commission for review — a process that itself would involve public discussion and a recommendation to Council.

But the measure comes as Oakland is in the midst of a neighborhood-wide planning process that began in earnest last year and is expected to wrap up in 2022. Critics argue that Walnut Capital is rushing to get out in front of community demands it may not want to meet, such as including affordable housing. They say its development proposal also sidestepped what should have been a series of community discussions facilitated by city planners before it came before council at all.

“The bill before you has skipped that process entirely,” said Oakland resident Andrea Boykowycz, who works at OPDC and petitioned for the hearing Tuesday. Moving the proposal along to the planning commission, she said “would set a dangerous precedent for every Pittsburgh neighborhood. … You’d be saying in effect that our neighborhoods are for sale to developers with political pull.”

Walnut attorney Jonathan Kamin countered that the developer has listened carefully to planning discussions at 39 meetings during the past year.

“The outcome of those meetings,” he said, “has been the identification of goals that Oakland would like to have achieved” — with such features as a grocery store, a pedestrian bridge to traverse the often-hazardous Boulevard of the Allies and more green space. “We have answered that call, and we have met those goals.”

If anyone was looking to cut off public debate, he said, it was critics who wanted to halt a review process that include public discussion by the Planning Commission and City Council itself.

“Let’s have a debate on the merits,” he said.

Kamin offered another explanation for the developer’s urgency about the project: It could draw on more than $35 million in federal coronavirus relief to pay for infrastructure costs. Such allocations were envisioned in a plan council supported this past summer, but there are time limits on how quickly the money must be spent.

“There is a real opportunity that that money could be leveraged … on a project such as this,” said City Councilor Bruce Kraus, whose district includes the project area. But those dollars “would be left on the table if a project such as this did not see completion.”

It’s unclear that such concerns will mollify doubters: There was criticism that council’s process for allocating federal aid this summer was itself rushed. And during both that debate and the public hearing Tuesday, skeptics groused about Mayor Bill Peduto moving on decisions that will have years-long impacts, given that he will be leaving office this winter.

Moreover, OPDC’s Wilson accused Walnut of basing its proposal on “handpicked goals” prematurely lifted from community discussions, noting that such individual ideas may not be part of the final plan the community agrees to next year.

Opponents did win at least a small delay Tuesday. Kraus said he would delay putting the bill on council’s agenda for “a little bit of time” so he could discuss the project with stakeholders further.

Kraus struck a conciliatory note as the meeting ended.

“What I hope we don’t do is throw the baby out with the bathwater and get caught up in personalities and not focus on the project and the principles,” he said. But he added that council could work through that dispute. “We have time to do that.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.