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Irish Centre zoning fight brings out new trend in Pittsburgh's housing conversation

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA

Canadian developer Craft General wants to build 162 condominiums on the site of the now-closed Irish Centre. The more than four-acre site is located in a deep bend of Commercial Avenue as it winds from Squirrel Hill to Swisshelm Park, hugging Frick Park as it goes.

It’s not hard to find signs that residents are wary of the proposal: They’re in nearby front yards and declare “No Frick’N way,” with a big red “X” over a rendering of the building.

Residents worry about traffic safety, landslides, and the effect on the park. For some skeptics, said Christina Cerkevich, the only question has been, “How do we stop this plan? Because this is just a terrible idea.”

Opposition to new construction from neighbors is nothing new. But this time, a new group of project supporters is insisting the city needs to add more housing or Pittsburgh will become increasingly unaffordable. And they say the need for more dense housing is especially acute in desirable neighborhoods like Squirrel Hill.

“We would like to see a future where housing is abundant and affordable for all citizens of the city,” said David Vatz, who leads the group Pro-Housing Pittsburgh.

A white brick building sits behind a sloping green, mowed lawn at the base of a large hill.
Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
The Irish Centre of Pittsburgh in Frick Park.

Vatz’s group is pretty much what it sounds like: It advocates for more housing in the city — any housing. The group got its start last year during the controversy around theOakland Crossings development, which proposed to re-zone much of Oakland to build more than 1,000 apartments and new commercial space.

“It started out really just as me and a few of my friends who were getting frustrated with the fact that we weren't building enough housing in Pittsburgh, and that was causing costs to rise for everyone,” Vatz said.

The rise of the YIMBYs

Members of Pro-Housing Pittsburgh see the problem as one of supply and demand: There is too little housing, so it’s expensive. Building more housing will make it more affordable for everyone. To do that, the group wants to overhaul city zoning laws to build housing more easily — especially projects that offer greater density than single-family homes.

“Right now our zoning rules make it very difficult to build,” Vatz said. “We would like to see it where those rules make it easier.”

That focus on zoning reform represents a new trend in Pittsburgh’s housing conversation: YIMBYs. That’s short for “Yes In My Back Yard,” as opposed to NIMBYs (“Not In My Back Yard”), a moniker long applied to those who oppose nearby developments.

Outside of Pittsburgh, pro-housing YIMBY groups have been growing rapidly: A2022 examination by Brookings researchers that looked at about 150 such groups found that roughly half had formed in the previous two years. The groups are most concentrated on the West Coast and are “especially prevalent in high-cost metro areas,” Brookings found.

The movement barely existed at all until about six or seven years ago, said Jenny Schuetz, a housing policy expert and co-author of the Brookings analysis.

“A lot of this is really in response to the rise in housing prices” in recent years, she said. “So it was very much a reaction to specific housing market conditions, but then also started to take on life as a political movement.”

Pro-Housing Pittsburgh has mostly focused its efforts on advocating for specific projects that increase residential density, like Oakland Crossings and the proposed Irish Centre redevelopment. Oakland Crossings was a mostly-market rate development that promised some workforce apartments; in its current iteration, the Irish Centre proposal is all market-rate condominiums. During a presentation to the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition Monday night, the development team said the condos would each sell for about $500,000. Vatz is a board member of SHUC.

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Pittsburgh is short some 17,000 homes that people with lower incomes can access, and most housing discussions focus on the need to build and protect affordable — subsidized — housing. Pro-Housing Pittsburgh’s support for market-rate housing has attracted plenty of criticism.

“Most people accuse us of being shills for developers,” said Dmetri Black, part of the group’s leadership team. Some have suggested the group is funded by developers or takes corporate money.

While the group is a chapter of YIMBY Action, which began in San Francisco, the national organization provides no financial support to Pro-Housing Pittsburgh. (It does, however, help the local effort with messaging.) The Pittsburgh group is all volunteers and has no outside funding, Vatz said. And its members say they don’t expect to benefit personally from the housing they support.

“The people who will benefit the most from any particular housing being built are the people who are going to live in it,” Black said. “However, those people don't yet know that they are going to be living in it, and those people might not even be living in Pittsburgh yet. David [Vatz] and I are highly unlikely to ever live in any of the buildings for which we're advocating.”

Opponents of the proposed Irish Centre development have specifically derided Vatz for buying and selling real estate himself, suggesting it runs counter to Pro-Housing Pittsburgh’s stated aim to create abundant and affordable housing. Vatz disagrees.

Vatz said he and his brother bought and renovated a couple once-vacant homes that they now rent; he renovated his former home and rents that as well.

“Although it has never been more than a side-hustle for me and isn't something I'm actively working on anymore, I'm proud of the positive impact I've had on those homes and the families who have lived in them,” he said.

New kid on the block

While members of Pro-Housing Pittsburgh argue that building more housing will help make it more affordable for everyone, the group doesn’t have much overlap with most of the city’s other longtime affordable housing activists and advocates.

That’s likely due to differing priorities, said Alison Keating, who’s a member of Pro-Housing Pittsburgh and also participates in Pittsburgh United’s Housing Justice group 

“The basic YIMBY idea that zoning should be more open and flexible is … something that people in the housing justice table do agree with,” Keating said. “But it's just not a priority because it's not something that's impacting folks that they know. And, you know, at the end of the day, the theories and policies that take 10, 20 years to work don't house people now.”

Several other local affordable housing advocates contacted by WESA for this story declined to comment on Pro-Housing Pittsburgh, saying they weren’t familiar enough with it to speak knowledgeably.

Speaking broadly about YIMBY goals and not the group specifically, Ed Nusser says the movement “feels like it's very much about market-based solutions to market failures.” Nusser, who serves as the executive director of City of Bridges Community Land Trust, said he’s supportive of zoning reform efforts, but said creating enough affordable housing for everyone requires government subsidy as well.

Nationally, Schuetz of Brookings said, some YIMBY groups have joined forces with more established affordable housing advocates.

Teaming up “[has] been key to some of the legislative successes,” she said.

‘Zoned ‘P’ for a reason’

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA

While opponents of the Irish Centre project cite numerous reasons for concern, neighbor Vicki Yann said the bottom line is the potential impact to the park and the general feel of the area. She and Cerkevich are members of a group called Frick Park Friends, which formed in reaction to the proposed development.

“It’s zoned ‘p’ [park] for a reason,” Yann said. “This is supposed to be a buffer zone between the high-density areas and the low-density park. So that's why they did the zoning that way and that's why it needs to stay that way.”

The current regulations allow for single-family homes and community uses on the land, so developer Craft General needs what is called a “use variance” to build multi-unit housing instead.

“A use variance is the hardest ask that you can make to the zoning board,” said Carolyn Ristau. After all, she said, such a variance is “fundamentally saying we're just gonna throw out the rulebook” made for the area.

Ristau used to work for Pittsburgh’s zoning office, but now runs her own land use research, education, and consulting business called Details Reviewed LLC. She did not comment specifically on the Irish Centre, but said a use variance almost always requires a lawyer, and making a case to the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Fewer such cases would appear before the ZBA if Vatz and other YIMBYs had their way. They want the city to change its zoning rules to allow more kinds of housing to be built without having to get special permission through a variance. (Changing the rules wouldn’t give developers a free pass: They might still have to go before the zoning board if they wanted to change rules for things like a building’s height or its distance from the street.)

In the meantime, Vatz said he believes the group is shifting the conversation around development.

“I think we've started to make some progress in changing the narrative around housing in Pittsburgh from an automatic ‘No’ to, you know, hopefully more ‘Yeses,’” Vatz said.

Pittsburgh’s Zoning Board will hear the Irish Centre case on August 3.

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.