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Development & Transportation

Oakland Crossings remains at odds with many neighborhood residents

Walnut Capital Oakland Crossings illo.png
Walnut Capital

A public meeting Monday night about Walnut Capital’s proposed Oakland Crossings development was marked by terse exchanges and deep-seated disagreements about the neighborhood’s future. During a tightly managed 90-minute meeting on Zoom, residents raised concerns about building heights and uses, parking and — repeatedly — affordable housing.

“We’ve seen the loss of countless individuals and families from South Oakland and surrounding areas due to lack of affordable housing,” said Ty Williams, a longtime South Oakland resident and president of the South Oakland Neighborhood Group. “We’ve seen developers misconstrue corporate benefits as community agreements.”

Oakland Crossings would remake nearly 18 acres of the neighborhood, with plans for new housing along McKee Place, mixed-use buildings along Halket Street, a grocery store, expanded green spaces, and an elevated pedestrian bridge over the Boulevard of the Allies. Walnut Capital requested changes to the zoning regulations to create a new public realm subdistrict, so that development can be done comprehensively.

The company argues its plan will attract new non-student residents to the area who will support amenities like a grocery store, and help reverse population decline in the area.

“Oakland is not a place where working people can live today,” said Todd Reidbord, the company’s president. “You need to change that dynamic, or Oakland is going to continue to go on a downward spiral.”

But a volley of comments in the chat noted that Walnut Capital plans to tear down existing student housing, which residents feared would displace students and drive up prices in other “residential areas already over-burdened with student renters,” wrote Geoffrey Becker.

Many others objected to the fact that Oakland Crossings, and the proposed regulations that would govern it, mentions affordable housing but fails to define for whom it would be affordable. Instead, it outlines multi-story mixed-use buildings and a plan to make 10 percent of the units “walk-to-work housing.” Walnut Capital is currently working with the University of Pittsburgh on the initiative; the units would be open to their employees, but there are no precise income thresholds.

That was intentional, said Jonathan Kamin, Walnut Capital’s counsel.

“The idea is to be able to have flexibility,” he said. “We think this will create the most income and housing diversity within the district.”

Concerns about parking and traffic, incongruously tall buildings with large offices, and the maintenance of Oakland’s residential character were also hotly debated throughout the meeting. The plan has generated similar concerns since the zoning legislation was introduced to Pittsburgh City Council by Mayor Bill Peduto’s office in September.

The administration, which is in its final weeks before Peduto leaves office, is sticking by Walnut Capital. Peduto’s chief of staff, Dan Gilman, wrote in a statement that “when positive, important opportunities for a neighborhood occur, you have to take advantage of the moment.”

Monday’s public meeting — required by city regulations to be held before a proposal can go before the Planning Commission — was hosted by Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, one of two registered community organizations for Oakland. (The other is Oakland Business Improvement District, which has endorsed the project.)

OPDC has been openly critical of the proposal since its introduction. And at the meeting, OPDC executive director Wanda Wilson would not allow Walnut Capital to display its presentation, leaving Kamin to talk through 12 pages of zoning text. Later, she questioned why the company wanted to allow “utility” as a primary use — a designation that can include substations, power generation plants, or sewage collection.

Reidbord said they want to be able to have micro-generation plants or solar arrays, and accused Wilson of using “scare tactics,” to distract from the company’s intended objective of “good, high-quality development.” Several times he described concerns about housing displacement as “false narratives,” and characterized the dissent around the project as coming from a “small group of people … most of them are on this call.”

They “don’t share our vision of the future of Oakland,” he said. But “[i]t’s up to our elected officials and others to see what’s best for the city and what’s best for Oakland.”

Councilor Bruce Kraus, who represents the area, said his office worked closely with Kamin to revise the legislation that will govern the development. That proposal will go to the Planning Commission early in 2022.