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Pittsburgh City Council hits pause on major Oakland zoning changes

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
A portion of Forbes Avenue would fall into one of the three new base zoning districts.

A move to overhaul zoning rules and reshape future development in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood was widely criticized by residents and other stakeholders — including the University of Pittsburgh — at a public hearing this week. And council, one of whose members acknowledged being "overwhelmed" by the reaction, said it will take time to assess the impact of the changes.

A bill under consideration by Pittsburgh City Council would establish three new zoning districts in Oakland. It would also expand the city’s inclusionary zoning rules, which require developers to price some of their residential units at rates lower-income people can afford.

Both the new zoning proposal — which affects the Fifth and Forbes Avenue Corridor, the Boulevard of the Allies and Central Oakland between Louisa and Dawson streets — and the affordable-housing component are pieces of the broader Oakland Plan. The city’s planning commission adopted that neighborhood vision earlier this summer, but the zoning proposals which embody those goals must be approved by City Council.

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The changes were discussed at a public hearing Wednesday and met with a decidedly downbeat response.

Many speakers were in favor of expanding inclusionary zoning into areas that include North Oakland and part of the Boulevard of the Allies. The rule was first established in Lawrenceville before expanding into Bloomfield and Polish Hill as a tool to make more housing available to lower-income residents. Community advocates champion it as a means to keep development in Oakland from pricing out people of modest means.

But nearly every speaker opposed the three new zoning districts, which set building size and use requirements for Central and South Oakland in three categories:

  • Urban Center–Mixed Use: Applies to an area near Boulevard of the Allies. It would allow broad commercial use, affordable housing and workforce housing.
  • Urban Center–Employment: Applies to the Fifth and Forbes Avenue corridors. It would prioritize workspace use over multi-unit residential use. Residential use is permitted only if less than half of the property is designated as residential or if all units are designated as affordable housing units for lower-income residents.
  • Residential–Mixed Use: Applies to Central Oakland from Louisa to Dawson streets. It would prioritize affordable rental housing in multifamily dwellings with a carve-out for small-scale commercial use.
A map of the three new proposed zoning districts.
Courtesy of the City of Pittsburgh
A map of the three new proposed zoning districts.

Among those in opposition to the new districts was the University of Pittsburgh, which urged council to return the legislation to the city's Planning Commission. The school hopes to redefine the requirements for development along Fifth and Forbes.

“This is not a request that the University makes lightly,” said Chuck Alcorn, a planner in the University of Pittsburgh’s office of planning, design and real estate. “However, as currently drafted, the ordinance could significantly impede University development objectives.”

Those objectives include building new student housing and classroom space along Fifth and Forbes Avenues, a Pitt spokesperson told WESA. In the new zone, Pitt could not designate an entire building for student housing. Developments in the zone must be mostly used for employment, and residential units must qualify as affordable housing.

It’s also unclear if the University could develop classrooms or lab space in the area under the proposed rules.

“The University would like to ensure the zoning allows for the development of University owned student housing closer to campus,” Pitt said in a statement. “In addition, the proposed legislation appears to limit the ability to develop academic educational and/or classroom space along the Fifth and Forbes Avenue corridors.”

All three of Oakland’s major community groups spoke in opposition of the new zoning rules. The Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, Oakcliffe Community Organization and the Oakland Business Improvement District all requested that council slow the process to allow for more input from the community.

“Your decisions will impact not only the thousands today and into the future, but within five years you’ll be impacting millions,” warned Georgia Petropoulos, CEO of the Oakland Business Improvement District. OBID played a key role in developing the Oakland Plan, which was compiled after numerous public meetings and community input.

Devising a set of zoning rules that appeal to everyone in Oakland could be next to impossible, warned Andrew Dash, the city’s deputy director of City Planning.

“Obviously in Oakland there are a lot of competing interests,” Dash said. Residents "want to make sure that the effects of density are … mitigated near them and they want to see additional open space." But on the other hand, "businesses and institutions ... want to see more opportunities for development and density.”

Dash argued the new zoning rules are designed to strike a balance between the competing goals of everyone who lives and works in the neighborhood.

Resident groups have long opposed a future where large buildings tower over single family homes. Elena Zaitsoff, vice president of the Oakcliffe Community Organization, demanded the city protect Oakcliffe from being overshadowed by tall buildings permitted in the Urban Center–Employment district across the street.

“The character of our neighborhoods will be destroyed” if buildings loom above single-family homes, she said Wednesday.

Along nearby Coltart and Halket streets, other residents are worried about becoming sandwiched between an Urban Center-Employment zone and an Urban Center–Mixed Use zone. This concern was illustrated in a rendering shown in the city’s presentation about the zoning changes.

This rendering from the Pittsburgh City Planning Commission illustrates what this residential neighborhood could look like with the new zoning rules in place.
Courtesy of the City of Pittsburgh
This rendering from the Pittsburgh City Planning Commission illustrates what this residential neighborhood could look like with the new zoning rules in place.

Andrea Boykowycz, assistant director of the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, argued during her testimony Wednesday that the result of the zoning changes would be even more drastic than the drawing suggested. She said the rendering doesn’t take into consideration the slope of the neighborhood, which includes Halket Place, Coltart Avenue, Paper Way and McKee Place.

After about 30 speakers weighed in on the new zoning districts, Councilor Bruce Kraus, who represents a portion of Oakland, called for council to discuss such concerns with the Planning Commission.

“This is a massive undertaking,” Kraus said. “I’m overwhelmed by what I was presented with today.”

The hearing was recessed to allow for that meeting and the possibility of another public hearing on the matter before council votes.

The pause was praised by the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation. Boykowycz claimed that the planning commission’s renderings and maps hadn’t been widely shared prior to the public hearing. She said the thirty-minute presentation about the new zones may not have been enough for anyone to draw an informed opinion.

“If you need additional time and information in order to be able to make a reasoned decision,” Boykowycz said. “Then I beg you to consider that the residents of Oakland might need the same consideration.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.