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Gainey puts future of Oakland Crossings on hold for another 30 days

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

On Tuesday Mayor Ed Gainey again hit pause on Oakland Crossings, a proposed development project that could remake nearly 18 acres of Central and South Oakland. The city’s Planning Commission was scheduled to vote today on legislation that would allow the project to move forward.

The second 30-day continuance was requested by the Department of City Planning and developer Walnut Capital, according to a statement from the mayor’s office. Gainey said he hopes “all partners involved remain committed to achieving our goal of creating a more affordable and equitable Pittsburgh.”

He added that his administration will advocate for an equitable development that “aligns with the priorities in the Oakland Plan,” including inclusionary zoning.

“Our goals are in alignment,” said Todd Reidbord, president of Walnut Capital. The question, he added, was how best to get there. “It’s sausage-making: how do you get a quality equitable development done in the City of Pittsburgh? It takes a lot of people and a lot of time.” 

The purpose of the first pause was to allow time for Gainey and his staff to continue to address concerns from community members, community groups, housing advocates, and the developer, Walnut Capital. Despite a series of meetings, no changes to the legislation or to the project had been presented publicly. However, community division over the project has continued to grow.

Former Mayor Bill Peduto introduced the Oakland Crossings legislation last fall. Because it originated with the mayor’s office, Gainey has the power to move it forward, pause it, or could remove it from City Council’s agenda all together while further discussions are held.

Leaders of both of the neighborhood’s registered community organizations, the Oakland Business Improvement District and the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, say they’re glad to have further time for discussion.

The mayor “wants to continue to listen, he needs more time, we support that,” said Georgia Petropoulos, chief executive officer of OBID, which supports the Oakland Crossings project. “This is a very big and important decision.”

Gainey is hearing from concerned Oakland residents about the zoning legislation, said Wanda Wilson, executive director of OPDC. “It gives the opportunity for us to look at planning and zoning through the plan process, which is really the way we should be regulating land use and zoning in our city.”

That city-led neighborhood planning process began in 2019. Early last week, the Department of City Planning released draft recommendations for zoning in Oakland. When Oakland Crossings first went to the Planning Commission in December, the absence of those recommendations concerned commissioners.

“The commission certainly can act without those zoning requirements being fully formed,” Commission Chair Christine Mondor said at the time. But doing so, she said, meant the commission was “flying blind.”

How the draft recommendations could affect the project remains to be seen.

Both Oakland Crossings and the Oakland Plan are about the future of Oakland, Petropoulos said, and there has to be flexibility that allows for change even while the Oakland Plan is finalized and adopted.

“We’re a downtown regional center, we’re responsible for the continuing growth of not only Oakland … but really of the city and the region.”

But the uses proposed for this section of Oakland, and its lack of clear commitments to inclusionary zoning and affordable housing are “not consistent with the vision for the community,” Wilson said.

Those concerns were echoed by more than 100 people who joined a community meeting with Gainey last month.

However, a group of about 60 homeowners on Halket, Coltart, Lawn, and Ophelia Streets sent a petition to the mayor’s office Monday morning that asked the administration to “rezone 17 acres of Oakland now” to ensure the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” presented by Oakland Crossings. A mayor cannot unilaterally change a neighborhood’s zoning.

“We’re here, and we want to be heard, and we want this,” said Franco Pasquarelli, who lives on Halket Street and also owns a home on Coltart Street. He loves the neighborhood but “it needs some revitalization, it’s kind of tired right now,” he said, adding the development could provide new residents and tax revenue to the city. Pasquarelli said he could not discuss the offer Walnut Capital made for his home, or whether it was contingent on the successful passage of the zoning legislation.

Walnut Capital said it is intent on seeing the legislation passed. If approved by the Planning Commission and City Council, the company “intends to begin site preparations and move through the planning and design approvals in 2022” the company said in a statement. 

Walnut Capital is talking with grocery store operators who want to open in Oakland, but it’s going to require thousands more units, Reidbord said. 

“You can’t just buy a grocery store,” he said. “You can’t put a grocery store in a neighborhood without the people to support it.”

Reidbord has presented Oakland Crossings as a way to attract new residents to Oakland, and says dense development is necessary to help the neighborhood grow as a regional job center and destination. Critics maintain the project leapfrogged the usual city planning process, and makes sweeping changes out of step with neighborhood character.

The project envisions many more apartments, a grocery store, and new green space. While it would affect parts of the neighborhood differently, some of the more striking changes are proposed for Halket Street and McKee Place, across from UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital and near the busy Boulevard of the Allies. There, existing two-story homes would be replaced with multi-story, multi-use buildings up to 120 feet on Halket and 108 feet on McKee.

Depending on their location on the street, the draft zoning recommendations released by the city would limit them to 40 to 65 feet and 40 and 85 feet, respectively.

Updated: February 8, 2022 at 2:04 PM EST
This story was updated at 2:03 p.m. on Tuesday, February 8 to include comment from Walnut Capital.