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Pittsburgh’s Planning Commission is worried about Oakland Crossings

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Walnut Capital's proposal would remake nearly 18 acres of Central Oakland.

Pittsburgh’s Planning Commission began its consideration of Walnut Capital’s controversial 18-acre Oakland Crossings development Tuesday. Mayor Bill Peduto’s office fully supports the project, but since its introduction to City Council early this fall, some residents have criticized it for seeming to leapfrog the conventional planning process. Planning commissioners raised similar concerns over two tense hours, and expressed serious reservations about numerous aspects of the proposal itself.

“It’s like I’m trying to help out this whole process with blindfolds, and not enough information,” said Commissioner Becky Mingo. “It’s unbelievably frustrating.”

Oakland began a neighborhood-wide master planning process in 2019, the results of which are expected to come before the Planning Commission this coming March. But the mayor’s office introduced legislation with zoning changes to help launch Oakland Crossings in October, and critics fear those changes would preempt the very standards the master plan is supposed to help shape.

But the developers note that the plan’s steering committee issued a set of objectives for potential projects undertaken while the plan was being crafted. The administration, City Councilor Bruce Kraus, and Walnut Capital officials say Oakland Crossings is in accord with the Oakland plan, and more specifically, meets the goals laid out by the steering committee.

It’s “very exciting and important,” said Jon Kamin, Walnut Capital’s attorney for the project, who told the commission he worked for six to eight months on the legislation that would help Oakland Crossings move forward. He called the project “a wonderful next step for Oakland and the city.”

Oakland Crossings aims to boost the neighborhood’s population by attracting new, non-student residents with multi-story mixed-use buildings, a grocery store, and overhauled infrastructure. Walnut Capital says the zoning changes it seeks are needed to allow the company to think about and design the whole area comprehensively.

Historically, “development has occurred on a case-by-case basis, one property at a time, without really taking into account what’s happening on your neighboring property,” said Todd Reidbord, president of Walnut Capital. “Here’s an opportunity for us to really transform our thinking, and take a look at some of the good things, and some of the not-so-good things about Oakland.”

Later in the discussion, commissioners pointed out that the Oakland master plan is intended to do just that, and asked why Walnut Capital couldn’t wait until the commission had been briefed on those recommendations in a few months.

“The commission certainly can act without those zoning requirements being fully formed,” said Commission Chair Christine Mondor. “But this is the commission flying blind.”

Walnut Capital
An illustration of the proposed Oakland Crossings development.

Oakland Crossings is broken into three subdistricts. The first covers McKee Place and Louisa Street and anticipates buildings up to 108 feet high, with first-floor commercial spaces and apartments and possibly office or lab space above. The second covers Halket Street, across from UPMC Magee-Women’s Hospital, and proposes buildings up to 120 feet with buildings similar to those on McKee Place. The third covers the rest of Halket Street toward Boulevard of the Allies, as well as the former Quality Inn site on Bates, and the former Isaly’s site across the way. Plans for the third district include buildings of up to 160 feet in height, additional green space, renovations to the Boulevard with a pedestrian bridge connecting the two sides of Oakland, and an overhaul of Bates Street.

But commissioners raised concerns about the impact of such a densely planned area on the existing character of the neighborhood. Mingo noted that parts of the project would bring “some pretty intense institutional and commercial uses” to an all-residential area which includes single-family homes. “How does the neighborhood feel about this?”

Commission members asked numerous questions about how the proposed housing, expected to be roughly 1,000 units, would alter the neighborhood’s population decline. Commissioner Sabina Deitrick argued that the loss has been driven heavily by the departure of families, particularly families of color.

“Meanwhile, non-family households have gone up by 20 percent” in the neighborhood, she said. “That’s what you’re building: housing for non-family households. So your demography isn’t quite spot on.”

Reidbord rejected Deitrick’s assertion and said a family means many different things today: Deitrick said she was using the definition of the U.S. Census.

Commissioner Holly Dick noted that none of the housing is specifically set aside for people with lower incomes.

“Mandate more, a larger percentage, of truly affordable housing that these people, the bottom ends of the scale, can afford,” she said.

Dick said Oakland residents have long wanted people who don’t make much money, but work for the big institutions, to be able to live in the neighborhood.

Reidbord has said repeatedly in the last few months that not every affordable housing solution is right for every neighborhood. The University of Pittsburgh chose Walnut Capital to be their development partner for its walk-to-work housing initiative. While Pitt officials say the plan is still in the earliest stages, they expect to offer an incentive that will help a broad range of employees rent apartments in Oakland. Kamin acknowledged that there is no income limit spelled out for those units, but said residents would not pay more than 30 percent of their gross income, and that they hope to allow for maximum flexibility.

Another major issue for the commissioners was how the zoning-change legislation came to their table in the first place. Multiple members described the process as “highly unusual.” They said that normally, proposing a zoning change of such magnitude would involve months of community engagement and work with the Department of City Planning. Kamin’s statement that the developers had worked on the legislation for over six months led members to ask where the community was during that time.

Kamin and Reidbord said they approached one of the neighborhood’s registered community organizations, the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation. But they said OPDC, which has emerged as a leading critic of the proposal, wanted nothing to do with it, so Walnut held its own series of community meetings.

City “council took the view, eight to nothing, that it was appropriate to send this on,” Reidbord said, referring to a unanimous council vote to refer the zoning proposal to the commission. “And this continued discussion about the process … has been a frustrating part on our end. We want to discuss the issues.”

“I know that you don’t want to hear about process, but that’s a big chunk of what planning is,” said Dietrick. “You’ve totally sidestepped what we would call community involvement and the planning department.”

Mingo noted that while there are clearly good ideas in the proposal, the commission has to think about what precedent their approval would set for the rest of the city.

Commissioners asked to have more information about a number of factors: how the proposal would affect the economic situations of nearby property owners; the developer’s plan for diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts; the definition and targeted demographics of housing currently set aside in the plan for people who work in Oakland; and the criteria that explains how the proposed subdistricts were put together.

While City Council may have advanced the proposal to the Planning Commission, Chair Christine Mondor said she and her colleagues lack crucial information about it.

“Devil’s in the details in the work we do, it’s boring work,” she said. “Council can make big proclamations, we do boring work, OK? Give us the boring details of it.”

Walnut Capital will return to the Planning Commission in mid-January, when members are expected to vote on the zoning proposal.