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Oakland Crossings moves forward, along with two other major neighborhood projects

Walnut Capital

Pittsburgh’s Planning Commission voted unanimously on Tuesday to advance Walnut Capital’s Oakland Crossings proposal. But the consensus for the plan — which has already generated months of controversy, community meetings, and negotiations — may be more tepid than the vote suggests.

“We don’t have enough time to review the design and we don’t have enough information,” Commissioner Becky Mingo said, frustrated at being caught between schedule restrictions under city regulations and lingering concerns about the plan.

And the commission voted to attach 10 conditions to its approval before sending the legislation to Pittsburgh City Council for action.

Among the changes was a vote to disallow “college or university campus” as a use in Oakland Crossings, which would limit schools’ ability to expand further into the neighborhood, and to add further review of building heights near existing residential districts — an effort to address concerns the new construction would overshadow existing homes in the area. The commission adopted a series of other conditions recommended by the Department of City Planning staff, which mostly make the new zoning rules for the 13-acre development area more consistent with existing regulations.

Those changes follow significant revisions already made by Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration to the legislation that would govern Oakland Crossings. Those changes shrunk the development from nearly 18 acres to 13, lowered building heights, added a commitment to affordable housing, and replaced a bespoke zoning district with a new classification called “Urban Center-Mixed Use.” The effort to negotiate such changes has been an early test of his administration’s ability to chart a new approach to development that seeks to balance investment and public benefit.

On Tuesday, two people urged the Planning Commission to approve the project.

The zoning changes are critical and would jumpstart Mayor Gainey’s goals to make Pittsburgh “an inclusive city that sustains livelihoods, that provides opportunities for current and future generations, and that will expand equitable opportunities for all people who want to work and live in Oakland,” said Georgia Petropoulos, who leads the Oakland Business Improvement District. The organization has long favored the project.

Six people spoke in opposition to the project.

Resident Mark Oleniacz said two weeks was not enough time to play out all the ways the zoning could negatively impact Oakland, and that many of the benefits Walnut Capital promises to deliver, such as a grocery store, do not require zoning changes. And he said the plan skirted a three-year-long effort to create a community driven “Oakland Plan,” which will guide future investment in the area. A draft of that plan was released earlier this month, and discussed by the commission Tuesday.

“This is the tail wagging the dog of the Oakland Plan,” Oleniacz said.

“We are not against progress or increased density: Our concern is over the proposed scale,” said Elena Zaitsoff, vice president of the Oakcliffe Community Organization. She and others worry that proposed building designs, even at reduced heights, will harm the neighborhood’s character.

Members of the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, which has opposed the project, raised similar concerns about building heights, specifically on Halket Street.

“Halket Street’s single-family houses were constructed in 1902 and have survived with comparatively few changes to the present day, creating a distinct and recognizable sense of place,” said Wanda Wilson, the organization’s head. Under the proposed plan, those homes could be leveled, and replaced with much taller multistory buildings. Wilson also objected to Walnut Capital being allowed to build college or university space in the development.

Mingo asked if the mayor’s team or the developer had drawings to illustrate how new maximum heights would look next to existing buildings, but they did not.

“I’m not sure that we have enough information here to be able to make a decision,” she said, noting that it’s fairly common during a zoning discussion to look at the surrounding area for consistency.

Those concerns, as well as questions about process — which have dogged Oakland Crossings since former Mayor Bill Peduto introduced legislation to advance the development last autumn — nearly brought the Oakland Crossings plan to a halt Tuesday. Commissioner Holly Dick made a motion to put off a vote until after the commission voted whether to adopt the Oakland Plan and its zoning recommendations.

In four chapters, the plan covers everything from investments in community and recreational spaces to the expansion of affordable housing requirements and, critically, zoning changes.

In two weeks members will hear a presentation on the plan’s development chapter, as well as changes to the neighborhood’s zoning. The entire plan, and those changes, will go to a vote on May 17.

In the meantime, the Oakland Crossing legislation will now go to Pittsburgh City Council. City, Councilor Bruce Kraus tried to assure commission members that their concerns, and those of the public, would be carefully considered.

“Our process is equal in duration, length, and intensity as yours and probably even more so,” he said.

Also on Tuesday, the Planning Commission recommended that Pittsburgh City Council approve a historic landmark nomination for Temple Rodef Shalom in Shadyside; members approved Duquesne University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine in Uptown, as well as UPMC Presbyterian’s 636-bed tower in Oakland.

UPMC and project officials touted the tower’s plan for green and public spaces, job creation, as well as UPMC’s commitment to giving back to the larger Pittsburgh community, and Oakland in particular.

Public comment for the tower was largely positive. However, Dan Davis, the economic justice organizer for Pittsburgh United, questioned UPMC’s community commitment.

“We need to stop propping up an institution that pays poverty wages while violating its workers’ rights, keeps large swathes of the community sick, and refuses to pay its fair share back into the community,” he said, referring to a 2021 Pittsburgh United report that catalogs income inequality and labor fights at the city’s largest employer.

Commission members unanimously approved the tower.